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Guest opinion: What I learned from talking to those in poverty

Skyline of Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018.
Skyline of Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“You’re either a good employee, or you’re a good parent.” That’s what a single mother recently said to me about her struggles trying to get out of poverty. Samantha (I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy) told me about how incredibly challenging it is to get off of public assistance. She has three kids, is trying to find sustainable work that will provide for her family, all while looking for housing that is affordable.

Samantha works hard to be a dedicated employee, but as a single mother she feels like it’s impossible to balance that with her responsibilities to her children. When she misses work to take care of an emergency for one of her kids, it can cause issues with her job.

Samantha’s story is not unique. And I’ve learned a great deal over the past year and a half hearing firsthand from people in poverty, listening to case workers on the front lines of social service delivery, and collaborating with a group of community leaders, experts, and advocates on the issue of intergenerational poverty.

A year and a half ago, I gathered a group of leaders together as the first ever Salt Lake County Intergenerational Poverty Task Force to understand challenges and seek for solutions. This group is comprised of representatives from Salt Lake County agencies who brought expertise in physical and behavioral health, human services, housing, economic development, and education. From the general community we have a child psychologist, state Child and Family Services representative, school district leaders and educators, city government officials, a University of Utah researcher and the state Department of Workforce Services. Many others have lent their help as well.

As this tremendous group of leaders, experts and advocates has met over this past year and a half, we’ve asked some key questions: What barriers do people in poverty regularly face, and what policy or system changes ought to be pursued to make a difference?

We’ve put our findings and recommendations into a comprehensive report on intergenerational poverty in our county, and I’d like to summarize some of our key findings here.

First, it’s important to note that most people who are stuck in a cycle of poverty desperately want to escape. They want to work and earn a living for their family, become self sufficient and prepare their children for success. Many struggle to find affordable housing, reliable transportation to get to jobs and employment that pays enough to make ends meet. Some face barriers to being truly work ready, such as mental and emotional health challenges.

Second, we frequently hear about challenges in policy, such as the “welfare cliff effect.” This is the notion that when someone earns more income (whether through a new job, a raise, or working more hours) they face a sudden and steep decline in public assistance benefits, often making the marginal increase in income not even worth it. Both the case workers and recipients of public assistance cited the cliff effect as a significant problem. We urge a state-level analysis of the scope and impact of the cliff effect, as well as any other perverse incentives that inadvertently disincentivize work.

Third, it became clear that a locally oriented, geographically targeted approach is a necessary way to truly address poverty. Data from the Department of Workforce Services showed that the zip code 84119 had the highest concentration of people experiencing intergenerational poverty of any zip code in the county. Our task force has focused our information-gathering effort on that area, as well as possible interventions.

The Salt Lake County System Navigator Pilot Program is creating a cloud-based data tool to help clients more efficiently navigate social services and will partially focus in 84119. Our task force has recently decided to zero in on Redwood Elementary School as a partner for better understanding and addressing intergenerational poverty. We are also exploring how to set up a cohort of the Circles program in 84119. Circles is an innovative nonprofit that builds social capital around “circles leaders,” pairing them with a team of mentors. It is precisely the kind of approach I believe is needed to help our fellow residents break the cycle of poverty.

Though a local focus is warranted for specific interventions, big picture policy issues must still be addressed. The cliff effect should be thoroughly assessed and mitigated. We should explore if mental health treatments can become a qualifying activity under the work participation requirements for public assistance recipients. And ongoing efforts to addressing housing affordability, transportation infrastructure and economic opportunity overall should continue with renewed vigor.

Lastly, it is vital that any anti-poverty conversations involve a priority to reduce the prevalence of childhood trauma. Far too many of our young Utahns are experiencing what social scientists now call “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” including any forms of physical, emotional or sexual abuse of a child. If we’re serious about stopping the cycle of poverty, we must also become serious about trauma-informed care as a component of any anti-poverty effort.

Not only people like Samantha need the changes and supports mentioned above to help break the cycle of poverty. Our county, and our state, also needs people like Samantha. We need every single resident to be able to participate in our economy and society to their fullest potential, bringing all that they have to offer to the table. As Utah’s economy continues to evolve into the 21st century, we will only remain the opportunity capital of the nation if we have all hands on deck. And that starts with making it a reality for any Utahn to be able to be a good parent, as well as a good employee. After all, Utah’s success hinges on a strong economy, as well as strong families, whatever those families look like.