Utah ranks No. 2 for low poverty, but is in bottom third for lack of health insurance

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Alexis Herrera, 11, cracks a smile after getting an immunization shot for school at the Junior League CARE Fair in the Horizonte Center in Salt Lake City in 2017.

New U.S. Census Bureau reports say Utah ranks second-best among the states for keeping poverty low — but is in the bottom third for how many residents lack health insurance.

That was contained in two reports released Tuesday from the Current Population Survey. The bureau is scheduled to release data on the same topics later this month from its larger American Community Survey.

New estimates say 7.8% of Utahns lived in poverty for a two-year average in 2017 and 2018 — or 1 of every 13 people. That tied with Maryland for second lowest in America, behind only New Hampshire’s rate of 6.8%.

Utah’s rate was a third lower than the national average of 12%.

The 2017-18 average in Utah was down from its 2015-16 rate of 8.9%.

Pam Perlich, senior demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, says a key reason for the improvement is that Utah’s economy has been booming in recent years and its unemployment rate has been low.

“But it is also because of Utah’s rate of married-couple families with kids. We have a smaller percentage of families that are single-parent households, although that’s changing,” she said. Poverty tends to be higher among single-parent households.

Also, “We also have more people per household, and income and poverty are measured at the household level,” so more incomes may be combined to help escape poverty, she said.

Meanwhile, Utah is in a tie for No. 34 among the 50 states for its rate of residents who lacked health insurance in 2018 — 9.4%, about 1 of every 11 people, or 295,000 in the state. That compares to 9.2% in 2017.

That is also higher than the national rate of 8.9%.

Laura Summers, senior health care analyst at the Gardner institute, said a main reason Utah ranks low is that at the time, Utah was among 19 states that had chosen not to expand the federal-state Medicaid program for low-income people.

“So hopefully we’ll see our rate change somewhat substantially next year” to reflect the state’s implementation of a partial expansion this year, she said.

Utah voters passed Proposition 3 last year to order a full expansion of Medicaid, but the Legislature reduced that to cover people at 100% of the poverty level beginning in April instead of at the 138% level permitted. Problems obtaining needed federal waivers for part of the revised program is expected to lead to other changes, perhaps back to full expansion.

Among the 19 states without Medicaid expansion, only four had better rates than Utah. “We do look pretty good in that respect,” Summers said.

But she notes that for individuals, “if you don’t have access to insurance, that can have a hugely negative impact on your life. It would be interesting to dive into the numbers to know how many are actively choosing not to be insured versus how many simply don’t have access because they’re not employed or their employers don’t offer coverage.”