With five hungry grandchildren to feed, Cheri Smith knows all too well how to stretch a half pound of hamburger and bake her own bread. The recession has been hard on this West Valley City family, even forcing the 68-year-old to turn to a few high-interest pay day loans. But they're surviving with the help of food stamps and grit.
"I've learned how to make things on nothing," said Smith, who sacrificed her retirement to raise her two daughters' children.
Their story is increasingly common, as the number of struggling Utahns grew from 2008 to 2009, according to new data released from the U.S. Census Bureau Tuesday.
Though Utah continues to have one of the lower poverty rates in the country, the percentage of children in need rose from 10.5 percent in 2008 to 12.2 percent, or 105,000 kids under 18, last year. That means about one in eight Utah children live in poverty.
About 42,000 are in families enduring with incomes at 50 percent of the poverty level, the equivalent of a family of four making roughly $11,000 or less per year.
"The number of children who now live in extreme poverty in Utah would nearly fill Rice-Eccles Stadium," said Allison Rowland, research and budget director at the advocacy group Voices for Utah Children. "Utah places such a high value on family and children it would make sense that we are willing as a state to invest more in our children or to support our children better in these terrible times."
During the same period, Utah's overall poverty rate grew 2 percent, from 9.5 percent to 11. 5 percent, one of the largest increases in nation.
"A state can be quite wealthy at the state level and still have a high poverty rate due to distributions of income," explained Andrew Jorgenson, a professor of sociology at the University of Utah, noting the U.S. has had a high level of poverty relative to other affluent democratic nations for many years.
Data from the 2010 census is not yet available. These new statistics are based on the annual American Community Survey, which is a sample of about 3 million American households surveyed by mail and phone and has the potential of a significant margin of error.
Like Smith, many impoverished Utah families are turning to free food at pantries. Christmas will depend on donations from community groups.
Skyrocketing demand at the Salvation Army reflects how need has grown. In the Salt Lake City area, the number of first-time families in crisis seeking help with food, furniture and bus passes has almost tripled during the past year, from 5,000 in 2009 to about 14,000 this year. The service office's relocation from downtown Salt Lake City to Glendale may have contributed to that growth.
"With the number of families that are coming to us, that's an indication that the recession isn't over," said Major Richard Greene, the Salt Lake Basin coordinator. "And the ones that I know who are out looking for work who just have not been able to find [any]."
According to the new data, more families are sending a larger portion of their income to the landlord. In Utah, the percentage of renters spending 30 percent or more of their income on rent and utilities grew from 40.2 percent to 45.8 percent between 2008 and 2009.
When Smith receives her Social Security check each month, the first thing she does is pay her mortgage, on the home she's refinanced several times the first time to pay for her daughter's unsuccessful drug rehabilitation.
"I can always find a way to feed them," said Smith, who has no savings. "But where would I find a place to sleep [for] them if they didn't have a house?"
How does the federal government define poverty?
The level of income that qualifies as poverty varies with family size. In 2009, a family of four with two children living in poverty had an annual income of slightly less than $22,000.