For the past two months, "home" for Brian Bonnet, his wife and their three children has been a single room at Utah's largest shelter.
It's hard to say who feels the stress of their situation most intensely: Brian, a construction project engineer who has exhausted his unemployment benefits but still hasn't landed a job? Allison, who struggles to make do in their cramped quarters, jammed with beds and belongings, while battling lupus? The 9-month-old, who seems to catch every little illness that comes along? The 8-year-old, who watches warily as his parents speak about their circumstances? Or the family's preteen, who worries her family won't move out of the shelter before she starts junior high school in a couple of weeks?
"I just don't want people knowing where I'm at," she said Monday.
Sadly, the Bonnets are not the only family in Utah or the nation plunged into poverty by an economic decline that, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has wiped out "tremendous gains" U.S. families achieved a decade ago. The foundation scrutinizes two new factors in analyzing that decline unemployment and home foreclosures in its 2011 Kids Count Data Book, released Wednesday. The annual survey uses 10 measures of health, education and economic stability to take the pulse of child well-being at the national, state and local levels.
The foundation says 42 percent of American children, or about 31 million, lived in low-income families as of 2009, the most up-to-date calculation available; that's up 18 percent from 2000. Utah now has 105,000 children living in poverty, on incomes below $21,756 for a family of two adults and two children; that's a jump of 20 percent since 2000.
That increase, coupled with stronger improvements in some areas by other states, caused Utah to slip from fourth to seventh place overall in the Kids Count national rankings.
"This is the worst ranking we've had since 2003," said Terry Haven, Kids Count director for Voices for Utah Children. "While we used to be way ahead of the nation in a lot of our measures, we're becoming closer to the norm. We've had a huge increase in children affected by their parents not working."
Nationally, 8 million children lived with at least one parent who was actively seeking a job in 2010, a number that has doubled in the past three years. Some 5 million children have been affected by foreclosure on their homes, a count the foundation said was conservative since it doesn't include families living in rental properties.
In Utah, some 65,000 children live in families in which, as with the Bonnets, at least one parent is unemployed; 56,000 have been affected by home foreclosures since 2007 and "Utah still hasn't seen the worst of it," said Christine Johnson, of Cornerstone Counseling, whose clients include families who have lost their homes.
Utah also marked a slight increase in births of low-weight babies, though such births still run below the national average. On the plus side, the state showed improvement in at least five other measures (see graphic), with fewer children living in single-parent families Utah's rate is lowest in the nation and fewer teens failing to finish high school.
Still, the foundation and other experts are concerned about the challenges many families face from a lingering recession and the prospect of more foreclosures. The foundation noted that it now takes two incomes to maintain the same standard of living a unionized blue-collar worker with only a high school diploma provided a generation ago. Likewise, the "pathways from poverty to the middle class have begun to erode or are in jeopardy," leading to what foundation President Patrick T. McCarthy called a "diminished sense of opportunity." Economic mobility is now lower in the United States than in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and France.
The Casey Foundation is promoting six "two-generation" strategies it says will put low- to moderate-income parents on track for economic stability and ensure their children have a shot at future success, including extension of unemployment insurance, foreclosure mediation and continued support of tax credits, wage supports and health insurance coverage. The strategy is bolstered by recent research the foundation said reconfirms the link between family income and a child's academic achievement. At age 4, children who live in very low-income families are 18 months behind the developmental norm for their age, and by age 10, the gap is still present, the foundation said.
With a growing number of Utah children "living in precarious situations, we need to help them, and we can't do that with a budget that keeps shrinking," Haven said. Just over 13,000 school-age children in Utah were homeless as of January 2011, according to the Utah State Office of Education.
For very young children, the stress of living in poverty and being homeless can have repercussions that last for years, said Janis Dubno, a senior policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children. When a family loses its home, children often have to leave familiar schools, give up activities and friends, and relocate to lower-quality neighborhoods. Teens may be required to get jobs to help the family, which causes schoolwork to suffer.
All of that worries Bonnet, who never imagined himself in this predicament.
Both he and his wife grew up in middle-class families; they met at Cottonwood High and married. Bonnet, 34, left college to work full time after the birth of their first child, but expected to return some day. "That never quite happened," he said.
After working various jobs, Bonnet got a good position as an estimator's assistant and project engineer with one of Utah's largest construction companies. Allison helped financially by working at seasonal retail jobs. Then the recession hit, and Bonnet was laid off in March 2009. Propped up financially by unemployment insurance, Bonnet returned to school intent on getting a construction-management degree that would allow him to better compete for jobs.
But his benefits ran out in spring 2010 and, no longer able to pay rent for their three-bedroom apartment, the family moved in with Bonnet's parents. In June, that arrangement fell apart due to what Bonnet called "differences in lifestyle, opinions."
As their downward spiral gained traction, Bonnet recoiled at the thought his family might be forced to seek help at The Road Home.
"Even as it was brought up, I was shocked at the idea that's not us," he said Monday. "But sometimes you're humbled."
The first night at the shelter was rough. Told he and his family would be bedded on cots lining a lobby and hallway, Bonnet balked before deciding "we didn't have a choice." They were able to move into their own room a few days later, sharing a communal bathroom and kitchen and, with five other families, a refrigerator.
While grateful for the help, Bonnet said he and his wife are constantly working to limit their children's exposure to sickness and unsavory characters. "We've become shut-ins," Bonnet said. "It's really hard. We've tried to make a rule don't become too familiar with anyone."
Understandably, their oldest child is "stir crazy and she's not having as happy a time" as her younger siblings, Bonnet said. And both he and his wife battle depression and frustration over their circumstances. "All things considered, she's being a trooper, doing a lot better than I am," he said of Allison.
During the week, if Allison is feeling OK, Bonnet puts in a full day of job hunting. When Allison isn't feeling well, he cares for the children.
Their car, owned by Bonnet's parents, broke down recently and was junked, leaving the family reliant on public transportation to get to job interviews and meetings with service providers. The Bonnets want to keep their children in the same schools they previously attended, which also will require a cross-town bus commute as long as the family remains at the shelter.
Bonnet hopes they'll be leaving soon. They are in the midst of being approved for the shelter's rapid rehousing program, which will provide a voucher to get into and help pay for housing. But without a job lined up, one with potential to become a career, he worries about making that work. "I fear if they stick us out there," Bonnet said, "and something doesn't happen ... nice as they have been, I don't want to come back here."
Bonnet said he's seen two families leave the shelter only to return a short time later shrouded in "embarrassment, shame and misery."
"You can just see it in their countenance, that they're crestfallen. It breaks your heart," he said. "And of course it makes you think, 'What am I doing to my kids?' "
Strategies for the future
The Annie E. Casey Foundation is pushing "two-generation" strategies it says will put low- to moderate-income parents on track for economic stability and ensure their children have a shot at future success. Those strategies, contained in a full report available at datacenter.kidscount.org, include:
Strengthen unemployment insurance and promote foreclosure mediation.
Preserve tax credits, wage supports and health insurance coverage.
Promote savings, asset protection and financial education.
Promote responsible parenthood and prenatal care.
Support early-education programs.
Promote reading proficiency by third grade.