Utah is among 43 states where the number of children living in poverty has increased, according to the 2012 KIDS COUNT Data Book released Wednesday.
From 2005 to 2010, the number of Utah children living below the federal poverty threshold $23,050 in gross annual income for a family of four rose from 11 percent to 16 percent, roughly a 45 percent increase.
However, the Annie E. Casey Foundation study also ranks Utah 11th in the nation in terms of overall child well-being.
This year's report expanded its analysis from 10 indicators to 16, spanning four categories: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.
"The domain we're doing the worst in is education," said Terry Haven of Voices for Utah Children, an advocacy organization that has received KIDS COUNT grants for the past 18 years.
"We can improve," Haven said. "We know kids do better when they get to school ready to learn, so quality preschool for low-income kids is crucial."
Utah's status • According to the national report, Utah ranked 13th among the states in terms of economic well-being even though it fared worse in all four measures, compared to previous KIDSCOUNT Data Books.
In 2010, 16 percent of Utah children were living in poverty. The percentage of children with parents lacking secure employment and in households with a high housing-cost burden grew; the number of teen not in school and not working climbed to 9 percent, a 50 percent increase.
Utah ranked 27th in education, even though the state improved in two of four measures. The number of children not attending preschool in 2010 59 percent was actually a 5 percent gain. And in 2011, 65 percent of eighth graders were not proficient in math, a 7 percent improvement.
However, in 2011, fourth graders not proficient in reading rose to 67 percent a 2 percent increase. The number of high school students not graduating on time held steady at 21 percent.
Utah kids ranked 13th for health, showing improvement in three of four indicators. Eleven percent of Utah kids lacked health insurance in 2010 a 15 percent improvement over previous years; in 2009, child and teen deaths slowed 17 percent to 25 per 100,000; and as of 2009, the numbers of teens abusing alcohol and drugs dropped to 6 percent a 14 percent improvement over past measures.
But in 2009, the number of low birth-weight babies rose to 7 percent, a 3 percent increase.
Utah fared the best in the family and community category, ranking 3rd among the fifty states. However, its scores on two of four indicators grew worse.
In 2010, 19 percent of children lived in single-parent families (a 6 percent increase), and between 2006 and 2010, the number of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods grew from 2 to 3 percent.
Teen births dropped by six percent in 2009 to 31 per 1,000, and between 2006 and 2010 ,the number of children in families where the head of household lacked a high school diploma remained constant, at 9 percent.
Young, homeless and seven mouths to feed. • Crystal Garcia, 28, has seen easier times. For the past month she has been living at the Road Home, a homeless shelter near downtown Salt Lake City, along with her own three sons, ages 12, 11 and 6 and her sister's twin seven-year-old boys, four-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter.
When Garcia's mother suddenly died four years ago, Garcia sank into depression, walking away from her house and everything she owned. Since then, she and her three children have stayed with family and friends. But when her sister asked her to babysit last Christmas and then never returned to pick up her children Garcia's struggles multiplied.
Taryn Ray, a case manager for the Road Home, said that getting Garcia into her own housing is doable, but will not happen overnight.
"We have some vouchers and transitional housing," Ray said. "We also have rapid rehousing funds available right now where we would pay the deposit and the first month's rent."
However, the wait for federally-subsidized Section 8 housing vouchers now takes three to four years, Ray said.
The Road Home has an unusually high demand right now for family housing, Ray said, and on any given day, it shelters between 55 to 70 families. With only 31 rooms for families, a crisis dorm was set up upstairs, and they've been lining the hallway with cots.
"Anything we can do to accommodate," Ray said.
Dennis Kelsch, who oversees basic services for Catholic Community Services, said the St. Vincent DePaul Dining Room which serves hot meals across the street from the Road Home has adapted this summer to accommodate a larger influx of parents with kids.
"We've set aside a whole side of the dining room for families," Kelsch said, adding that they generally arrive early, eat first and then the area is cleared for single people.
Shaping policy • Haven expressed concern over Utah's slide in all four economic well-being criteria. As Utah's KIDS COUNT program director, Haven aims to educate policy-makers and the public about area needs.
"While we rank well now, we may not rank so well in the future," Haven said.
One way lawmakers could help Utah's struggling families, Haven believes, would be to enact a state earned income tax credit similar to what exists at the federal level.
"We run (legislation) every year," Haven said, "but it never gets any traction."
On Tuesday, rallies and marches to raise the minimum wage were underway in 29 cities across the nation, none of them in Utah.
According to the National Employment Law Project, if the federal minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would now be more than $10.50 per hour rather than the current $7.25, which is also the minimum wage in Utah.
How are Utah's children?
16 percent • nearly one in six live in poverty
24 percent • nearly one in four have parents who lack secure employment
37 percent • more than one in three live in households with a high housing cost burden
9 percent • nearly one in 11 teens are not in school and are not working
11th • Utah's rank among the 50 states in terms of overall child well-being
Source • 2012 KIDS COUNT Data Book