Utah’s rate of childhood poverty has improved — except in these school districts

The childhood poverty rate in Utah decreased by 0.3% between 2021 and 2022, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Program.

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Childhood poverty rates improved overall in Utah between 2021 and 2022, based on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

But in a handful of Utah’s school districts, the number of kids living in households making less than the poverty threshold increased by double-digit percentages.

Two school districts — one with an estimated decrease in childhood poverty, and another with an estimated increase — said they use different data to track how many children are economically disadvantaged.

Those data are based on the federal poverty level, instead of the poverty threshold, and also often depend on people applying for such programs as free and reduced-price lunch.

Alpine School District added they don’t typically analyze what’s causing changes in income levels, but instead focus on providing “the very best educational experiences available.”

Poverty spiked in six districts, mostly in rural parts of Utah

The childhood poverty rate in Utah decreased by 0.3% between 2021 and 2022, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Program.

That program uses poverty thresholds to provide estimates of income and poverty for the administration of federal programs and the allocation of federal funds to local jurisdictions.

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of children aged 5 to 17 living in households experiencing poverty also decreased by about 2%.

That wasn’t true for every district, though. The childhood poverty rate increased in 21 of 41 districts, though mostly by less than 5%.

Within the boundaries of six districts — Box Elder and Davis in northern Utah; North Sanpete, South Sanpete and Wayne in central Utah; and Washington County in St. George — the number of school-aged children living in poverty and the poverty rate both jumped at least 10%.

In three of those districts, it jumped more than 30%.

Other districts saw major improvement, including Grand County and Kane County in southern Utah; Morgan in the north; North Summit, east of the Wasatch Mountains; and Tintic in the central part of the state.

San Juan School District, in southeast Utah, still has the worst poverty rate at 27% but improved from 2021 to 2022.

Some school districts — such as Beaver School District, in southwest Utah, and Uintah School District, in the northeast part of the state — had fewer children living in poverty within their boundaries, but have an increased rate because fewer school-age kids live there.

Lunch program, homelessness data show different trends

Yet school districts track numbers differently.

They primarily collect data on families’ income through the National School Lunch Program application process, said Rich Stowell, spokesperson for Alpine School District.

That program uses the federal poverty level (FPL) as a base, with students qualifying for free lunch if household income is 130% of the FPL, and a reduced-priced lunch if it’s 185%.

The federal poverty level and poverty threshold can vary by hundreds of dollars or more a year.

For the 2022 poverty estimates, the official Census Bureau poverty threshold for a family of four with two related children under age 18 was $29,678, compared with $30,000 set by the 2023 federal poverty guidelines.

Census Bureau numbers also are based on where a child lives, not where they go to school.

That can lead to some widely varied data on childhood poverty.

For example, about 15,000 Alpine School District students were considered “economically disadvantaged” in 2021, and that increased to more than 17,000 in 2022 before coming back down to about 15,000 in 2023.

But Census Bureau estimates indicate about 5,276 school-age children within Alpine School District’s boundaries lived in poverty in 2021, and that number decreased to 4,673 in 2022.

Steven Dunham, spokesperson for Washington School District in St. George, nodded to a potential flaw in the data related to the lunch program.

The district’s rate of students on free and reduced-rate lunch decreased despite Census Bureau data indicating the rate of childhood poverty decreased.

Yet the lunch program is dependent on families applying. The decrease could reflect “the difficulty of getting parents to fill out the free and reduced form after two years of not having to,” Dunham said.

Dunham provided other data that indicates the number of Washington School District students experiencing homelessness is increasing.

The final-day count decreased from 617 in 2021 to 595 in 2022. It then increased to 762 last year, which is close to the increase in the Census Bureau’s poverty estimate.

The district’s unhoused county was at 884 as of late March.

Where to get help

While Census Bureau poverty thresholds help dictate how the federal government doles out money, families don’t have to make less than those levels to qualify for help.

Utah has several child nutrition programs, including free and reduced-rate lunch.

The Teen Center Project provides food and other essentials, like showers and laundry, and is working to expand statewide.

The federal government maintains a list of other programs in Utah that help with everything from child care to energy costs to nutrition.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.