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Faces of intergenerational poverty: State program highlights success stories

SANDY — Alexus Martinez was stone-faced and matter-of-fact Monday as she described how she became homeless at age 16 and "learned not to depend on anyone else but myself."

She said she grew up with role models addicted to drugs — heroin and pain pills.

She said she's watched as three of her six brothers also fell into the thralls of drug addiction.

To Martinez — now 20, a single mother with a 1-year-old son, Aurelius — that was their choice.

"They grew up just like me," Martinez said. "They could have made the choice to go down that path like my parents or be successful. And they chose the wrong path."

Martinez is one of nearly 40,000 adults in Utah who lived in intergenerational poverty in 2016, according to the state's newest report released Monday. When her son, Aurelius, was born, he was one of nearly 60,000 children.

Martinez said she dropped out of high school in 10th grade but decided to go back in 11th grade, even while she struggled to keep a roof over her head and afford to eat. She said she worked after school so she could pay for a motel room, but would sometimes have to eat at the homeless shelter downtown.

Eventually, she graduated early. But not without hardship.

"Just trying to survive, … the shelter was pretty scary, very scary. If you're going to eat, if you're going to have clean clothes … It was a struggle." Martinez said, her eyes brimming with tears.

Her once-steady voice cracked. A single tear rolled down her cheek.

"I would never want my son to live like that," she said. "I can change it. I can. I know I can."

Through the Utah Department of Workforce Services' program Invest in You Too, Martinez hopes to break her family's cycle of poverty and addiction.

The Invest in You Too program, a partnership with Salt Lake Community College, is meant to help single women experiencing intergenerational poverty pay for education for a high-demand job — in Martinez's case, medical manufacturing.

The state pays the roughly $1,200-per person cost of the two-month program. Last year, nine women graduated and seven found jobs in the medical manufacturing industry, said Karla Aguirre, who oversees the program for the Department of Workforce Services. This semester, Aguirre said there are 13 women participating.

Martinez is one of those 13. She said she's determined to graduate, and she's already got several promising referrals lined up for a job.

"No one can change my life or my son's life but me," she said.

For six years, state leaders have been studying ways to shrink or disrupt the cycle of intergenerational poverty in Utah.

The 2017 report released Monday shows some encouraging — though "modest" — results. But even though the report shows some improvements for families caught in the cycle, there remains little change in the number of families experiencing intergenerational poverty.

"But there are some positive changes that we're excited about," said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox at a news conference at Salt Lake Community College Monday.

Those include a rise in graduation rates for children at risk of remaining in poverty, from 50 percent in 2013 to 63 percent in 2016.

"Obviously 63 percent is not where we want to be, but a 13 percent increase over three years is significant, and we're excited about that trend," Cox said. The Invest in You Too program is just one example of the state's effort to break the cycle one family at a time.

Cox said stories like Martinez's are "emotional, real and raw," and "it's incredible to see this success."

"This is why we do what we do. This is what the (state's) intergenerational initiative is all about — trying to change lives one at a time, lifting people out of poverty, breaking that cycle so the next generation can experience that success and that hope," Cox said.

Utah is the only state in the nation to establish a law to reduce intergenerational poverty, Cox said. Legislation passed in 2012 requires the Utah Department of Workforce Services to produce an annual report on its progress.

One of Martinez's classmates, Kaydee Rasmussen, became emotional when she announced Monday she had just learned she would be starting a new job as a project manager with a medical manufacturing company, Evolve Tek, on Tuesday.

Rasmussen, 40, said she spent 10 years addicted to drugs — first pain pills, then heroin and meth — after she suffered a sexual assault that left her with "low self-esteem and self-worth" when she was 26.

She said luckily she had supportive parents and was able to avoid homelessness, but because of her addiction, she had "no prospects" for a stable life for her 2-year-old-son, who was at-risk for intergenerational poverty.

Now 40, Rasmussen said she never thought a career in medical manufacturing would be possible until she learned of the Invest in You Too program.

"It's an opportunity that …," she trailed off as she held back tears, but continued in a trembling voice. "It's an opportunity to better my life. And it's going to take me places that I never thought I was worthy of going. I'm just so grateful — it would have never have happened without this opportunity."