Utah’s poverty rate is nation’s 3rd lowest — but prosperity is spread unevenly

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Students at Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City pick up bags of food from volunteers from Fidelity Investments as part of the Utah Food Bank's mobile pantry on Nov. 2, 2017.

Utah ranks third among states with the least amount of poverty. But disparity among its counties and its school districts is vast, new U.S. Census Bureau data show.

For example, more than one of every five people in San Juan County — home of the Navajo reservation — lives in poverty. That is five times the rate of high-income Morgan County.

Even within the same county, differences are sometimes great.

For example, Jordan School District in the fast-growing and increasingly wealthy southwest corner of Salt Lake County has a student poverty rate of just 5.3%. But in the Salt Lake City School District, where minorities outnumber whites with many recent immigrants, the rate is nearly three times higher at 14.6%.

“We see geographic disparity in opportunity and in economic, educational and health outcomes” that create pockets of problems even in a state with low poverty, said Pam Perlich, senior demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The Census Bureau released estimates of income and poverty for the nation’s counties and school districts on Thursday. It is used to determine varying levels of Title I funding for schools based on their number and percentage of low-income children.

The data say 9.1% of Utahns lived in poverty in 2018, tying with Maryland for third lowest. The only states with lower rates were New Hampshire (7.6%) and Hawaii (9.0%). Mississippi had the nation’s highest poverty rate at 19.8%.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Despite Utah’s relatively low rate, the Census Bureau estimates that 283,562 Utahns lived in poverty in 2018 — about as many as the combined populations of Salt Lake City and Ogden. A family of four was considered to live in poverty that year if its income was less than $25,100.

Perlich listed numerous reasons for Utah’s overall low poverty, from a booming economy to larger families that often include multiple workers.

“Right now, the economy is very good in Utah,” she said. “The unemployment rate, if not the lowest in the nation, is among the lowest. We’ve had very significant job growth over the last decade,” she said.

Utah also has one of the nation’s lowest rates for single-parent households. “Those single-parent households with children generally have higher poverty rates,” she said.

Also, Utah has among the largest number of people per household in the nation. “So you’ll have more people working in a household — including young people,” Perlich said.

But the spread of good times is uneven.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Students at Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City pick up bags of food from the Utah Food Bank's mobile pantry on Nov. 2, 2017.

“In some of our rural counties, people are isolated. They don’t have access to educational or economic opportunity,” she said.

Most of the counties with the highest poverty rates in Utah generally fall into that description: San Juan (22.6% poverty rate), Piute (18.6%), Sanpete (14.8%) and Carbon (14.5%).

On the other end of the spectrum, Morgan County has the state’s lowest poverty rate at 4.0%. Not surprisingly, new data also says it has the second highest median income in the state at $98,875.

“Morgan is a small county, a suburban county, a commuting county where a lot of folks drive into Weber County to work,” Perlich said. In recent years, many commuters moved there to buy larger homes and more land for less money.

Counties along the Wasatch Front, where most Utahns live, had relatively low poverty rates because that urban area has low unemployment rates and fairly high wages.

The rates were: 5.7% in Davis County, 9.0% in Salt Lake County and 9.4% in Utah and Weber counties.

But poverty rates in school districts within those counties varied greatly.

In Weber County, Ogden School District had a high 17.4% poverty rate while adjacent Weber School District was far lower at 7%.

In Salt Lake County, school districts that are minority-majority or with many new immigrants had relatively high poverty rates, such as 14.6% in Salt Lake City School District and 12% in Granite School District.

But districts in less diverse and more wealthy suburbs had low rates, including Jordan at 5.3% and Canyons at 7%.

Also released Thursday were the 2018 median household incomes for Utah’s counties.

The highest were: Summit, home of Park City, $105,374; Morgan ($98,875); and Wasatch ($85,380).

Those with the lowest were: Piute ($40,387), San Juan ($42,982) and Wayne ($47,175).

The household median incomes along the Wasatch Front were: $84,381 in Davis County; $75,296 in Utah County, $73,619 in Salt Lake County and $66,106 in Weber County.