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Painting a Picture of Poverty in Utah: By the Numbers

"Out of the Spotlight" Posting for April 3, 2012

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.


In Utah, a picture of poverty is about to get painted. The state legislature has unanimously passed a bill that will provide data on the extent of, and the demographics attached to, intergenerational poverty in the state. While Utah may be the only state with such a law, there is growing interest around the country in research that shows economic mobility is more elusive in the U.S. than in other developed nations. Simply put, it's getting harder and harder for American families to move up the economic ladder and into a measure of financial security where they can afford quality health care, to send their kids to college, and can put away a little for retirement.

Existing national data may hint at future state findings. An Urban Institute study found that "being poor at birth is a strong predictor of future poverty status." About 30 percent of white children and 70 percent of black children who are born poor spend at least half their childhoods living in poverty. And children at the bottom of the ladder face greater challenges as adults in moving up. As the Mobility Project notes, "it is fairly hard for children born in the bottom fifth to escape from the bottom: 42 percent remain there." Poverty is much more than just statistics though, and for the Utah bill's sponsor it gets personal.

The new law was shepherded through the legislature by Sen. Stuart Reid, a conservative Republican. The Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act was driven by Reid's interest in getting accurate data to help shape future legislative proposals around intergenerational poverty. And, it likely reflects his own experiences with poverty. As a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reid is responsible for administering his church's 75 year-old programs to provide members and non-members with food, clothing, job training, and other services. In his own home, Reid and his wife have helped a struggling young teen in the neighborhood with basic necessities, and plan to adopt him in the future.

How conservative is Sen. Reid? He was a vocal supporter of a Utah bill that would have permitted schools to stop teaching about contraception in favor of an abstinence-based approach. He was also the chief sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would have limited tax revenues similar to the TABOR law in Colorado.

And yet around 40 progressive groups got behind Sen. Reid's Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act. As Karen Crompton, Executive Director of Voices for Utah Children notes, "Our hope is that this new law will raise awareness among the broader population that poverty does exist in our state and that poverty results in a host of negative child outcomes." Crompton and the other groups comprising the Family Investment Coalition aligned with Reid because they value the data and related public awareness, and agree that battles over specific policy solutions can happen in the future, if necessary.

So, where is Reid heading? The bill calls for an annual state report on the latest data on intergenerational poverty. Reid secured some initial data from the state about welfare programs (not just cash aid, but also medical assistance and food stamps, now called SNAP) participation. The findings show that about one third of adults who participated in the programs had also participated for some period as a child. It will, no doubt, be a challenge for the state to develop and track intergenerational data that goes beyond programs to the broader issue of poverty, the bill's stated goal, but it's a vital piece of the picture.

While it is too soon to predict what policies will flow from the reviews of intergenerational poverty data, the title of Reid's November op-ed may signal his approach: Policymakers should shift priorities and resources to children. "For example, we could ask a parent not just about job search but also about their child's well-being," Reid says. The senator has already asserted that he wants the implementation of the data bill to be "inclusive" and consider recommendations from progressive groups, such as those who are part of the Family Investment Coalition. Crompton, for example, thinks data by zip code would help.

A painting, even a painting-by-numbers, should give a fuller and shared picture of poverty in the state. That can only help. A shared picture, however, is not the same as a shared policy solution. Implementing effective policy requires a messier, more creative, and not-by-the-numbers kind of artistry called politics.


By Jodie Levin-Epstein

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

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Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn't always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and their impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact mlaracy@aecf.org or watersboots@hotmail.com