SALT LAKE CITY — To Amaya Flores, the cold seems especially bitter when walking outside with a newborn.

Almost every day, she walks or takes the bus to doctor appointments, employment counseling and case management meetings with her baby and 4-year-old daughter in tow.

At the moment, there's not much of an alternative for the 26-year-old single mother.

"I don't really have a support system familywise. I don't really have anyone to watch my kids when I get things done," Flores said. "It's a challenge in many ways."

More single mothers like Flores are falling below the poverty line throughout Utah and the U.S. Last year, almost 38 percent of single moms in the state — roughly 22,000 women and their children — were in poverty, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But resources are available. For the past three months, Flores and her daughters have lived at LifeStart Village, a facility operated by the Family Support Center to provide housing and training for single mothers and their children at the brink of homelessness.

Flores said the new arrangements are making a difference for her and her daughters.

"I feel like it's changing me a lot as a person, as a mother, in so many positive ways. I'm just really glad I came here," she said. "I feel like I'm growing and becoming stronger."

Flores plans to go back to school and earn a degree in social work, a field she hopes will allow her to use her experience in helping other families in need. She's attended college before, but working toward a degree may be harder the second time around with two children and no spouse.

"I'm expecting it to be 10 times harder because when I was going to school, their dad was in their life. They would hang out while I went to night school because I worked during the day," she said. "I've got to make sure I'm good and ready with two kids now."

But she sees education as the bridge to a new life for her family.

"It's really important to be healthy and happy, because if you're not healthy and happy, then neither are your kids," she said. "You have to do it for them."

A widening gap

The new Census numbers come at the conclusion of the 2010-14 American Community Survey, a nationwide analysis that measures poverty, income, housing, population and other factors. For the first time Thursday, researchers have access to data from two nonoverlapping time periods, providing comparable results between the 2005-09 and 2010-14 data sets.

What the data reveal is that while overall economic conditions are improving, more families are being impacted by poverty. The percentage of single moms with children under age 18 below the poverty line increased by 6 percent to 37.5 percent between the 2005-09 and 2010-14 surveys. Nationwide, the increase was half as steep but with a higher overall percentage of 40.5 percent.

The increase was even more visible on the Wasatch Front. Davis County saw an increase of 10 percent to the portion of single mothers in poverty, and Salt Lake and Utah counties increased by roughly 8 percent.

Utah's growing minority population also struggled. In the 2010-14 survey, 26 percent of Hispanics were living below the poverty line, up from 20 percent in the 2005-09 survey. For Salt Lake County, that increase was 7.5 percent, and for Utah County, 8 percent.

Poverty rates for Utah's general population reached 12.8 percent, with almost 15 percent for children under age 18.

Meanwhile, Utah's median household income increased by $4,204 between the two surveys, reaching $59,846 in 2014. That's compared to a $2,057 increase for the U.S., which had a median household income of $53,482.

It's a dichotomy showing that the benefits of improved economic conditions aren't reaching everyone, especially those with less education or skills that are obsolete in a new economy, according to Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem. C. Gardner Policy Institute.

"It's been a very uneven recovery. It's the story of inequality that we know is playing out across the country, and it's playing out here in Utah," Perlich said. "We're seeing the people who have been especially punished by this recession are working class people who just have high school educations or less."

Higher levels of poverty have a wide array of implications for children and families, according to Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children. Those can include higher rates of teen pregnancy, low birth weight babies, low test scores, high school dropouts and other issues, she said.

"Poverty affects just about everything else that we look at," Haven said. "It's kind of a domino effect."

Solutions in the works

Lawmakers are considering several initiatives to give children of low-income families a better chance at succeeding in school. One bill would allocate additional funding to expand public preschool services, and another would provide $31 million to open up optional full-day kindergarten to more at-risk pupils.

It's a targeted approach to helping students gain basic reading and learning skills to which they may not have full access if their parents are working long hours, Haven said.

"Children in kindergarten through third grade, they're learning to read. From third grade on, they're reading to learn," she said. "If they haven't learned to read, they can't read to learn and they fall farther behind and end up dropping out."

Better access to higher education is also critical for people who may need to develop new skills in light of a transformed economy, and state leaders have largely taken notice, Perlich said.

"It's part of the push by the governor's office and the Legislature to look at strategies to increase postsecondary education for everybody, whether that's a certificate or whatever it is, so that their skills match the demand for labor that's out there," she said.

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Such changes can be painful at both the family and institutional levels, but Utah is in a better place to improve opportunities for low-income families and their children, according to Haven.

"It's not insurmountable. The thing about poverty in Utah, while it's going up slightly, it's a lot less than in other places in the country," she said. "We need to know that with the right political will and the will to really want to change life for the better, we can do it."


Twitter: MorganEJacobsen

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