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Nobody gets very far in Utah politics without pledging allegiance to the notion of family.

But the Utah concept of support for families is something that, as Hamlet might have said, is more honored in the breach. Because the state's political atmosphere fears mandates, the so-called family-friendly policies on the books in this state are often negative in nature.

School spending is the lowest in the nation, per-pupil, largely because our state tax code is so generous with income tax deductions for an unlimited number of offspring. Utah legislators have been reluctant to implement policies that, in other domains, are seen as family- and child-friendly but here are perceived as an improper reach into private affairs. They include such things as offering all-day kindergarten in the public schools or fully mandating the use of seat belts.

Even the recent debate over state laws governing sex education in Utah public schools came down to a dispute over how families are best served. The view that carried the Legislature was that an official silence was best. But Gov. Gary Herbert's stated reason for rightly vetoing that bill was his sense, born out by much public commentary, that families that choose not to opt out of the class should not be deprived of that option.

Two other examples of how a policy of benign neglect toward families don't always work out so well have been presented to Salt Lake Tribune readers in just the last few days.

The most heart-wrenching example was the news that in Utah, one of the states that has yet to mandate full health insurance coverage for treatment of autism spectrum disorders in children, some parents are left so helpless in their attempts to manage uncooperative, sometimes violent, children that they have turned their severely handicapped children over to the care of the state.

The last session of the Legislature created a new program that will help some families with autistic children. But because lawmakers wouldn't put an insurance mandate, or much state funds, where their hearts supposedly were, only about 250 families will receive the aid. And they will be picked in a lottery-like manner, adding insult to injury for those who miss out.

Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the Legislature and just released by the Department of Workforce Services notes that poverty is partly hereditary. Children who grow up in poor homes may remain that way their whole lives.

The good news is that, if lawmakers take the results of this someone obvious conclusion to heart, they may see that a little more targeted intervention in the lives of some needy families now will have pay-back, in the form of independent, tax-paying children and grandchildren, for years to come.

Utah's leadership is right to be reluctant to swoop in and disrupt the lives of functioning families, just to make the state seem good or necessary. But they are wrong to believe that a Little Bo Peep approach — "Leave them alone and they'll come home, wagging their tails behind them" — will help those who need it the most.

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