One in six Utah children lives in poverty. Actually, it may be more than that. That number, presented in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report, is from 2011. But the trend is not good. In 2008, it was only one in nine children. The 2011 number is the highest in at least a decade.
That by itself was enough to keep family-friendly Utah from breaking into Kids Count’s top 10 states for children. (It finished 11th.) Utah used to be a perennial Top 10 finisher in this comparison, which looks at a variety of statistical data to draw conclusions about kid-friendliness. Utah traditionally has received higher marks for child health and stable families to overcome lower marks for education, where the state trails the national average in pre-school attendance and high school dropout rates.
But poverty, defined as a family of four earning less than $22,350 annually, has been dragging us down. This year’s finish was actually an improvement from 2013’s 14th place, but it’s a big drop from 2009’s third-place finish.
The county-by-county breakdown shows a wide disparity of children living in poverty – from 6 percent of Morgan County (one in 14) to Piute County’s 37 percent (more than one in three). But virtually all counties have seen their percentage grow steadily in the years since the Great Recession.
So what’s going on here? We’ve all heard the trumpets proclaim Utah’s success in growing its business environment since the darkest days of 2008-09. Unemployment, consistently among the lowest in the nation, has dropped under 4 percent, which is essentially full employment. Why do we have more children living in poverty?
The answer is in the growth of the working poor. Some families have breadwinners who work full time but still only make minimum wage. Others make above minimum wage, but have so many children they’re still below the poverty line. This growth in child poverty in Utah is not welfare queens feeding off an entitlement culture. This is hard-working families not making it.
Poverty is systemic and stubborn, and there is no single governmental or societal solution that will reverse it. So when the child-poverty rate climbs in a state where prosperity is otherwise increasing, it’s cause for alarm.
The children can claim complete innocence regarding the circumstances of their poverty. What’s left for the rest of us is to lift them up. And we better start lifting more of them, or we’re headed to one in five.
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