Utah's poverty rate climbs to 13.5 percent of population
Petra Ullmann didn't anticipate she'd one day be barely scraping by when she moved to Utah from Germany in 2005.
The 45-year-old mother of three moved to the U.S. to join her husband in Midvale, where the couple worked together rearing their daughters, now ages 11, 13 and 15.
But what started out as a happy beginning soured last November, when the couple separated and filed for divorce. The bad news then kept coming for Ullmann.
On a temporary work permit, she hasn't been able to find a job. Ullmann's rent is subsidized, but she receives only $526 a month in food stamps to provide for her daughters. Two of the girls suffer from asthma, which recently landed the eldest in the hospital after complications from a virus. Ullmann often wonders what she'll do when the next challenge arrives.
"[Money] doesn't stretch far enough because food got more expensive," Ullmann said. "You have to live off ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese."
Newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau's one-year American Community Survey shows that Ullmann and single mothers like her are far from alone in the battle against poverty.
The survey found 13.5 percent of Utah's population and 15.9 percent of the state's children lived in poverty in 2011, a definition established by the federal government as a family of four earning $22,350 or less in gross annual income.
According to U.S. Census data for 2011, close to 10 percent of Salt Lake County households received food stamps, 17.9 percent of families with children lived in poverty, and 43 percent of single mothers with kids lived below the federal poverty line.
The Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, reports that 32 percent of working women nationwide earned poverty-level wages $11.06 per hour or less in 2011, and 24.3 percent of men were in that situation as well.
That translates to more hungry families who in the worst circumstances sometimes find themselves on the street, said Rachel Fischbein, emergency services director for Salt Lake City's nonprofit Crossroads Urban Center.
"We're seeing families with no income. Most don't have full-time jobs if they have a job at all," said Fischbein. Problems multiply for job seekers living in poverty because many don't have enough education, she said, adding that Crossroads staffers do what they can to help.
"We make sure they get all the state services to which they're entitled," Fischbein said.
Numbers worse in southern Utah
The recent census figures show that no part of Utah is immune from hard times. But Washington County is among the hardest hit, with about one in four kids living in poverty in 2011, the survey shows.
Washington County's woes stemmed from the housing crash, foreclosures and the loss of construction jobs.
"Many who made fairly good money became unemployed," said Sherri Dial, community action program director for the Five County Association of Governments.
"We're seeing homeless families," Dial said. "And we're not set up for that."
Jobs are more scarce in southwestern rural Utah, Dial added, noting that hundreds of applicants will vie for a single secretarial opening.
Affordable housing is also harder to come by in Utah's Dixie. Funding for a 92-unit apartment project is being sought, Dial said, to give families somewhere to stay while they repair their credit and find new jobs.
Terry Haven, KIDS COUNT director for the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children, believes the economy shows signs of stabilizing, but the recession caused "good people who have done all the right things" to slip into poverty.
"Many of our middle class were just a paycheck away from disaster and then we had a disaster," Haven said. "We know that 56,000 kids were affected by home foreclosures."
KIDS COUNT, sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, routinely tracks and reports on data linked to child well-being. Haven is optimistic that Utah's challenges and the extreme circumstances in Washington County can be addressed.
"With the right policy choices and if the political will is there, we have the capacity to bring down this poverty," Haven said. "We know what works and we know how we can do it."
Haven supports proven programs such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that provide struggling families with options to improve their quality of life.
She would also like to see a state earned income tax credit that would funnel additional income to struggling households, along with high-quality preschool programs to reduce the achievement gap.
Some Utah lawmakers have specific projects in the works. During its 2012 session, the Legislature approved SB37, a bill that launched tracking of inter-generational poverty referring to families where at least two generations have received welfare assistance.
Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, sponsored SB37 and said that the state Department of Workforce Services has collected data that should be ready for release soon.
"Just over 51,000 children fall into that group," Reid said, underscoring the importance of differentiating between situational poverty caused by a job loss, illness, accident or some other blow and inter-generational that becomes part of a family's culture and lifestyle.
"By treating both the same, you're condemning successive generations to the poverty cycle," Reid said. "By the time you're an adult, that's all you know."
That cycle includes poor education achievement, dropping out of school, substance abuse, criminal activity and early pregnancy.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, plans to run a bill in the 2013 session that would create a high-quality pilot preschool program at the state level to expand efforts already in place in the Granite School District and Park City.
"There is evidence that a high quality preschool project with specific criteria has phenomenal outcomes," Osmond said, pointing to Granite's program that focused on 238 at-risk students.
"Education addresses poverty and creates hope," Osmond said. "It will increase their ability so they can compete in the marketplace like everyone else."
While discussions for how to ease the burden for poverty-stricken families continue among lawmakers, those grappling with the issue firsthand are living day by day with hopes for a brighter future.
Ullmann said while she's grateful she's had an opportunity to live in Utah, she wishes there were more resources to help her family out of their current predicament.
Returning to Germany is not an attractive option, though.
"I've gotten so used to everything here," Ullmann said, noting she's interested in relocating to Oregon when she can.
By the numbers Utahns in poverty in 2011
13.5 percent • almost 375,000 people
15.9 percent • more than 140,000 children
40.1 percent • single-mother households with children
Source: U.S. Census/American Fact Finder