SALT LAKE CITY — For six years, state leaders have been studying ways to shrink or disrupt the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Utah, and their newest report is showing some encouraging — though "modest" — results.
But while the state's sixth annual report, made public Monday, shows some improvements for families caught in a cycle of poverty, there remains little change in the number of children and adults experiencing intergenerational poverty.
According to the report, even as state and local leaders continue with initiatives to improve opportunities for impoverished families, nearly 40,000 adults and 60,000 children lived in poverty in 2016.
That's enough children to fill every seat in Vivint Smart Home Arena nearly three times, the report states.
Intergenerational poverty is defined as two or more generations living in poverty, with intergenerational welfare recipients defined as people who received more than 12 months of public assistance as children and more than 12 months of assistance as adults.
To Tracy Gruber, author of the report and senior adviser of the state's intergenerational poverty initiative, "modest improvements" in areas such as childhood development, family economic stability and education are showing promising progress for an issue that will take years to address.
"This is a long-term effort," Gruber said in an interview Friday. "If we are going to reduce intergenerational poverty for kids, it will take several years to see the true fruits. The positive is we are seeing modest, incremental improvements in many areas that are going to impact childhood well-being and help support their forward progress in being contributing members of Utah's society."
Those improvements? Increasing access to early childhood programs, more economic stability for families, gains in proficiency scores and rising graduation rates, the report states.
For example, the average annual wage for adults in those families rose from about $10,700 in 2013 to about $12,600 in 2016, the report states.
Additionally, graduation rates for children at risk of remaining in poverty improved to 63 percent in 2016 compared to 50 percent in 2013, and third-grade language arts proficiency rates increased from 19 percent to 24 percent between 2014 and 2016 among students in intergenerational poverty, the report states.
The sites for high-quality, certified preschool programs also increased from 90 in 2016 to 172 in 2017, according to the report.
Those improvements and others, Gruber said, show an encouraging trend that the state's efforts to address intergenerational poverty is helping — though the problem remains a deep-rooted issue.
But "just as there are modest improvements, there are some troubling signs," she said.
Though family income is improving, it's still "incredibly low for these families, making it difficult for the parents to meet the basic needs for their children," Gruber said.
There is still very low utilization of health care, dental care and mental health care, Gruber added. For example, 94 percent of children in intergenerational poverty have health care access through Medicaid or other programs, but the number of them utilizing these services is low, according to the report.
"But the state's not just standing idly by while these things continue," Gruber said. "They're promoting strategies and connections for those families to make improvements."
State leaders have been researching public assistance dependency and intergenerational poverty since 2012, after passage of legislation sponsored by former Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, that requires the Utah Department of Workforce Services to produce an annual report on the issues.
Along with past progress reports, state leaders have highlighted programs that have been implemented to improve opportunities for families in intergenerational poverty.
State leaders planned to highlight on Monday one of those programs — the Department of Workforce Services' Invest in You Too program, a partnership with Salt Lake Community College to help single women experiencing intergenerational poverty pay for education in medical manufacturing, an occupation that currently has a high demand for employees.
Last year, the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission recognized that the data in the annual intergenerational poverty reports was helping the state address the challenges confronting families, leading the commission to revise its five- and 10-year plan to include concrete recommendations stakeholders could implement.
That led policymakers at the state and local level to begin making progress through the implementation of policies that are data-informed and research-based, Gruber said.
For example, leaders from counties across the state have helped develop local plans to reduce intergenerational among Utah children, Gruber said.
"There's still ground to cover, but we're making progress," Gruber said. "It's important to emphasize this is not only a state effort but a local level effort. The communities that have really taken the lead are best equipped to moving the work at a local level."