SALT LAKE CITY — On paper, at least, Utah fares much better than most states on measurements of poverty.
Still, the numbers are too high, says Lori Bays, director of Salt Lake County Human Services.
"The strength of our community is about all of us. We're only as strong as our weakest members. Seventeen percent poverty for children in our community is unacceptable," Bays said during a panel discussion on intergenerational poverty Wednesday.
The community discussion was part of a program hosted by the child advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children, which released a national report on two-generation strategies to address poverty.
Low-income Utah parents on average are more likely to be employed and have higher levels of education attainment than their peers nationwide.
Still, the report found that 142,000 children in Utah age 5 and younger are part of low-income families, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation report “Creating Opportunity for Families: A Two-Generation Approach.”
The percentage of Utah children at risk of developmental delays is 22 percent, compared with 31 percent nationally, the report said.
“The numbers are too high, but they’re not so big if we really want to move the needle on this. We can get it done," said Karen Crompton, president and CEO of Voices for Utah Children.
Across the state, local governments, state government and nonprofit organizations are doing "exciting things" to improve the odds for low-income families and children, Crompton said.
Cherie Wood, mayor of South Salt Lake, said the community's Promise partnerships, which provide educational and prevention-focused programming outside of school hours at schools and in neighborhoods to more than 2,500 children, have significantly reduced juvenile crime between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
But the program has loftier goals, Wood said. South Salt Lake aims to create safe and healthy neighborhoods and to emphasize academic achievement to the point "that every child has the opportunity to attend and to graduate from college," she said.
Erin Trenbeath-Murray, CEO and Head Start director with Salt Lake CAP, said the early childhood education and wellness program is evidence-based and dates back to 1965.
Yet, Utah is one of seven states in the country that doesn't fund its Head Start programs.
"It's ridiculous," she said, noting that
Head Start programs in Salt Lake and Tooele counties are recognized among the best in the country.
"There is no reason we shouldn't have investment from our state stakeholders in their own state's children," Trenbeath-Murray said.
Meanwhile, the Utah Department of Workforce Services is in the early stages of a pilot program called Next Generation Kids, which will provide intensive case management to children and parents in intergenerational poverty.
The program was launched at James Madison Elementary School in Ogden with about 30 families, with a goal of enrolling 50 families, said Tracy Gruber, senior adviser of the department's intergenerational poverty initiative and director of the state Office of Child Care.
Addressing the issue will ultimately require partnerships among government, nonprofit and private sector entities, Gruber said.
"It's slow work, but it's important work. We're all working together to figure it out," she said