A look at Utah's poor

Published December 3, 2005 1:17 am
As low-wage workers struggle, religious leaders seek solutions
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For Charity Conner, the American dream is a house, two dogs, a car and more time for family.

But for Conner, who is temporarily homeless, it's a dream deferred.

Conner is employed as a checker at Dan's Foods, spending long hours on her feet and earning $7 an hour, barely enough to afford her own groceries. Her boyfriend, Josh Rambel, committed to helping raise her three children, also works hard. But the family is just eking by on their combined monthly income of $2,000. Something as minor as a trip to the doctor or dentist or winter utility bills can set them back months.

"It's always something," says 29-year-old Conner. "We never seem to get ahead."

It's a growing sentiment in America, where even as the poor are struggling to climb out of poverty, members of the middle class are losing ground. Contrary to the prevailing belief that the poor are unwilling or incapable of holding down a job, three out of four low-income Utahns come from a household where at least one family member works, according to the nonprofit group Utah Issues' 2004 Poverty Report.

They bag your groceries, serve your burgers and baby-sit your children, testing the quintessentially American belief that poverty can be overcome through hard work - and forcing forcing policymakers and charities to "re-examine how we help or don't help those who are less fortunate or less privileged," says the Rev. Dan Webster, spokesman for Utah's Episcopal Diocese.

A member of a coalition of religious groups dedicated to fighting poverty, Webster delivers the keynote address at a summit on the topic today. Organizers at Crossroads Urban Center, operator of the state's largest food pantry, hope the summit will help advocates draw consensus on key battlefronts heading into the 2006 Legislative session.

Webster's marching orders are simple: weigh all policy recommendations against "the common good."

Government has become a pawn of the wealthy, argues Webster, pointing to a federal minimum wage that hasn't kept pace with inflation, disparities in the public education system, weakened social welfare programs and a regressive tax system that favors the rich.

Consider the following, he says: Utah's personal bankruptcy rate is the nation's highest, the rate at which Utahns go hungry is the fifth highest and we have the 14th highest tax burden, despite a higher-than-average number of residents working more than one job.

"This tells me there's not enough money in one job to keep a family together. If you are spending more time at work than you can with your family, then your family values are going to suffer," Webster says.

Advocates say they are not calling for a welfare state.

"There is some poverty that will never be solved," says Bill Crim at United Way of Utah. But for the growing ranks of working poor, a plausible solution is "making work pay" with policies that promote family savings and job growth.

When that's not enough, Crim and others recommend offering other supports, such as day-care subsidies and help with transportation, health insurance and food.

Topping this year's legislative agenda are proposals to remove the sales tax on food and boost Utah's hourly minimum wage from the federal standard of $5.15 to $7. Most advocates support any pay increase, though they would prefer moving to a living wage, something closer to $11 an hour. They are divided on stripping the food tax. Some say the proposal is sound in theory but could wind up costing the poor as lawmakers starve social service programs to make up for lost revenue.

By legislative researchers' estimates, a family of five like Conner's spends about $300 annually on food taxes. It would be nice to "bank that money," says Conner, surprised by the figure. That said, she would prefer a "pay raise," health insurance and help with child care.

The couple is new to Utah. They arrived about two months ago from Elko, Nev., fleeing bad marriages and stifling economic conditions. Conner set her sights on enrolling at Utah's College of Massage Therapy, thinking education was "her ticket."

But soon after arriving, new daughter Hayley was born four weeks before her due date, before Conner had a chance to find a job or affordable place to stay. Were it not for a Utah charity, they would be on the streets. At night, the family sleeps at churches, moving from one to the next every week under arrangements made through the Interfaith Hospitality Network.

The couple has saved for an apartment, which they plan to move into on Sunday with Hayley and sons Keelyn, 8, and Conner, 10. But mounting medical bills have damaged the family's credit, making them ineligible for most car loans.

"A lot of employers want you to have reliable transportation," said Conner.

Also out of reach is paid child care. So Conner, who should be on maternity leave, works evenings and juggles her work schedule with Rambel's temporary jobs so the kids are never left alone.

"We never see each other," says Rambel. The family's expected budget is suffocating: $600 on rent, $500 for groceries, $100 for utilities and about $200 on bus passes, plus payments on medical bills.

"You pour all your money into rent and utilities, because you have to pay those. Whatever is left goes to pay for food," says Conner. "What do I feed my kids?"

Conner and Rambel admit they have made bad choices, such as marrying and having children too young. They both struggle to quit smoking, an expensive habit at $50 a week.

"This is an especially stressful time. There's no way I can quit now," says Conner, who grew up with the odds stacked against her in a working class home with alcoholic parents.

"We had holes in our shoes. I was in 22 different schools by the time I got out of eighth grade," she said. "I'd like to do better by my kids."


Poverty in Utah

According to the Utah Issues 2004 Poverty Report:

* More than 206,000 Utahns live below the federal poverty threshold, but another 86,000 are functionally poor (earning less than $26,123 for a family of four).

* Utah's median hourly wage of $12.20 is 37 cents lower today than it was in 1979 (in 2003 dollars).

* Utahns earning below $16,000 annually spend 11.4 percent of their income on taxes, whereas those earning more than $280,000 pay 5.5 percent.

In the upcoming legislative session,

lawmakers will consider:

* Removing the sales tax on food.

* Boosting Utah's hourly minimum wage from the federal standard of $5.15 to $7.



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