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Working poor are struggling

Report says nearly 30% are below poverty level

Hillary DeMonja can finally afford medical insurance for herself, but only after working more than 60 hours a week at two jobs that both pay more than the federal minimum wage.

She still cannot, however, pay the monthly premiums required to insure her 11-year-old son, who is enrolled in a government-sponsored health insurance program for children.

DeMonja, 31, is not unlike thousands of other Utahns, according to a report released today by Utah Issues. In its State of Working Utah 2005, the anti-poverty research organization notes that thousands of employed Utahns are hovering at or are below the national poverty level.

"So many people who are in poverty are working — working hard, working full-time jobs," said Sarah Wilhelm, economist for Utah Issues. "If just one little thing goes wrong . . . it could really push them over the edge and put them in a really dire situation."

Despite increased job growth and dropping unemployment rates in Utah, nearly 30 percent of Utah workers earn a wage that leaves them below the poverty level, today's report states. Additionally, more than 40 percent of workers don't earn enough money to support a family with two working parents.

"Even though this is supposed to be a banner time for our country as far as the economy goes, people who are working are still struggling," Wilhelm said.

During the first quarter of 2005, Utah was fourth in the country for job growth, particularly in the high-paying manufacturing field. Still, the report notes, Utahns continually earn lower wages than workers in the rest of the country. In 2004, the median wage for Utah workers was $1.42 less than national figures, according to the report.

In a family with two working adults and two children, both adults must make $11.34 an hour to meet the family's basic living expenses, according to state figures. The self-sufficiency standard for a single parent is $19.04 an hour, today's report states.

With a federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, those standards are nearly impossible to meet, Wilhelm said. Individual states have the power to raise the minimum wage, which Utah Issues has advocated, but Utah lawmakers have elected not to do so. Additionally, the Legislature also recently passed a law forbidding municipalities from raising the amount, Wilhelm said.

DeMonja makes $10.50 an hour at her full-time job and $7 an hour in her part-time position. She struggles to make ends meet each month but said she has pulled through by taking advantage of every opportunity that comes her way.

"In the state of Utah, there are endless resources," she said. "If you look for the resources, generally you can survive."

James Lipps also took advantage of those resources, particularly the state Department of Workforce Services' vocational training program. With the agency's help, the 30-year-old now has his commercial driver's license and stable employment.

And after three months at the Road Home, Lipps is preparing to move into an apartment in Rock Springs, Wyo. "I knew that there was a light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "It was a storm, and I just had to wait it out."

Some of the most vital resources and programs for Utah's working poor are at risk, Wilhelm said. Of particular concern to Utah Issues is likely cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, as well as the Earned Income Tax Credit that many people rely on to increase their income tax return and allow them to pay down debt or set aside some money for future expenses.

With so many people already on the edge, Wilhelm said, "we can't pull the rug out from under these people by cutting Medicaid, cutting the EITC."

Andrea Pearson, a single mother with two teenage children, relies on the income tax credit to reduce her debt. She also takes advantage of Section 8 housing, a low-income housing program that has allowed her to rent a house. She also uses what she calls "creative financing" to meet her family's needs while also allowing opportunities for entertainment and fun things.

"I certainly don't consider myself in the poverty basket. We don't talk about that," Pearson said. "We just budget."


E-mail: awelling@desnews.com