Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, left, Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison and Utah Department of Human Services Executive Director Ann Silverberg Williamson address an audience as part of a panel discussion on intergenerational poverty in rural Utah, at Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center on Wednesday, June 1. [Photo by Eric Trenbeath / Moab Sun News]

Early intervention is the key to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty and dependence on public assistance, according to a state commission’s new report on welfare reform.

A panel that included Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Department of Workforce Services Executive Director Jon Pierpont and Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison presented the report last week to a packed room of Grand County community members and leaders at Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center.

Sakrison told the assembled crowd of nearly 100 that as a community, “We owe it to our citizens to do something about this, to try and break the cycle of generational poverty. We owe it to them, and we owe it to ourselves.”

The report identified 10 rural Utah counties that are at a high risk of experiencing intergenerational poverty. Grand ranks in the top five where children living in poverty have a 52 percent likelihood of remaining in poverty as adults.

Other troubling statistics show that 38 percent of Grand County adults, and 26 percent of children experiencing intergenerational poverty, are victims of abuse and neglect, and that 71 percent of intergenerational poverty youths have involvement with the juvenile court system.

Additionally, the report shows that 79 percent of adults experiencing intergenerational poverty lack higher education, and that only 57 percent graduated from high school.

Sakrison said he first became aware of the report at a rural partnership meeting hosted by Gov. Gary Herbert and that he was “astounded” by the findings.

“I didn’t realize that Grand County was in the situation that it’s in,” Sakrison said.

Grand County Council member and Seekhaven Executive Director Jaylyn Hawks told the Moab Sun News that the report confirmed what she and others working with families in the community intuitively felt.

“Being one of 10 counties in Utah identified with having a significant portion of the child population at risk for remaining in poverty as adults is a wake-up call, but not unexpected,” Hawks said.

Hawks said that barriers to affordable housing, and a tourism-based economy that provides mostly low-paying jobs without benefits, also contribute to intergenerational poverty in Grand County.

On a positive note, Hawks said that Grand County is uniquely positioned to combat the problem through collaboration between the many nonprofits and government agencies that serve area families.

“We also have a small but generous donor base to share among several dozen nonprofit organizations,” Hawks said. “All of these factors tend to encourage collaboration and we are good at it here in Grand County.”

Cox told the crowd that he believes Grand County is able to solve the problem at a community level.

“This is not the state telling you what to do,” Cox said. “Grand County is very different (from other counties). You have different liabilities and different assets.”

Cox said the government’s role would be to better coordinate the work that various state agencies are already doing, but added that government can’t provide a final solution to the problem.

“The government is really bad at many things,” Cox said. “Government was never meant to be efficient. It is made to be slow, methodical and plodding.”

Cox referred to former President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and how much money had been spent, while poverty rates still remain about the same.

“Republicans will say it was a total failure, while Democrats will point to statistics claiming success,” he said. “Who is right? I think Republicans need to use their hearts a little more and Democrats need to use their heads.”

The fourth annual report on intergenerational poverty, welfare dependency and the use of public assistance, is the result of four years of study and data collection that the Utah Department of Workforce Services and other state agencies undertook.

Intergenerational poverty is defined as a situation of poverty and public assistance dependence that continues from one generation to the next.

Pierpont contrasted intergenerational poverty with situational poverty, where an unforeseen event such as job loss, divorce or illness can make it necessary for someone to go on public assistance. Pierpont said that in most cases, situational poverty is temporary, and that the state has a 70 percent success rate for getting people off public assistance.

But in the case of intergenerational poverty, Pierpont said, “Children who grow up with assistance tend to stay on assistance.”

Pierpont said that in the past, programs such as job training and education focused on helping adults get off public assistance and out of poverty, but that by working with children, there is a higher likelihood of breaking the cycle.

“You can’t ignore the adults who are raising these kids,” Pierpont said. “But to create a pathway for kids to be successful in communities is an important aspect of the work going forward.”

Tracy Gruber, a senior adviser on intergenerational poverty and director of Utah’s Office of Child Care, said the commission’s report identified education, family economic stability and health as indicators of child well-being that lead to success in adulthood.

She stressed the importance of early access to health care, quality child care, preschool participation and kindergarten readiness.

“We’re trying to understand barriers beyond economics,” Gruber said.

Grand County Council member and retired elementary school teacher Mary McGann told the Moab Sun News that funding preschools would help bridge the gap for kids who come into kindergarten without rich vocabulary skills.

“We have the lowest student expenditure of any state in the nation,” McGann said. “We can’t expect to bridge these gaps until we make funding education a high priority.”

McGann said that it’s not a matter of parents not caring. They just don’t have the skills to prepare their children for school by reading to them, she said.

“It’s not something they experienced and that’s why it cycles,” McGann said. “If you break it for one person, then you break it for a lot.”

Hawks said that multifaceted solutions are needed to care for the whole family, such as education and job training for parents, access to affordable housing and child care, and instilling in children a sense of ownership and belonging to the community.

“They need to be supported from a very early age in educational success,” Hawks said.

Hawks said that naming a coordinating entity that would be tasked with building a coalition of all the resources available in Grand County would be a good first step in formalizing the process. But she added that it is important for the entity to get past the theoretical stage and develop a strategic plan with tangible objectives.

“Because so many issues in Grand County either drive or are driven by intergenerational poverty, this coordinating entity would ideally touch upon all aspects of life in our community and would be comprised of passionate, dedicated leaders who will roll up their sleeves and set the community on a true course to address these issues,” she said. “It won’t be easy and the results won’t be immediate, but I believe our community is equal to the task.”

Advocates see need for early access to health care, education, to break economic pattern

We can’t expect to bridge these gaps until we make funding education a high priority.