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Utah may say it treasures its children, but the state is spending less, per child, than it did before the Great Recession hit in late 2008, a new study shows.
Voices for Utah Children's annual budget report, released Thursday, shows that while the state's overall spending on children rose nearly $45 million in real dollars, it didn't keep pace with the growing child population, which rose from 850,233 in 2008 to 908,953 in 2014.
Utah's spending on children is still $322 less per child than it was in 2008, according to the study. Adjusting for inflation, Utah spent $5,746 per child in 2008, but $5,424 in 2014, a 6 percent decline, the report says.
The amount $322 per child may not seem like a lot, but it adds up to a dizzying total: $293 million more that the Utah Legislature would have had to spend in 2014 to equal what it spent on children six years before.
"It's a substantial amount of money," says Matthew Weinstein, state priorities partnership director at the 30-year-old child-advocacy nonprofit.
"The argument we would make is if we could afford it in the past, why can't we afford it now? It's a matter of what are our priorities," he said.
Per-child spending bottomed out in 2011, said Curtis Miller, a statistics graduate student and instructor at the University of Utah, who prepared the report. "But we have still quite a ways to go."
Ninety cents of every dollar Utah spends on children goes to K-12 education. Four cents goes to health programs such as Medicaid for low-income youngsters, and 2 cents each goes to juvenile justice services and to child welfare. Other kid-centered programs are food and nutrition, early-childhood education and income support programs.
The tax burden on Utahns is at its lowest in two decades, thanks to tax cuts, Weinstein said. "The downside is we've invested less in these important elements of future prosperity and growth."
Funding children's programs, particularly education, is important for the economy and to prevent social dysfunction, he said during a Web-based news conference. "We strongly feel these investments do pay for themselves in the long run."
The shortfall is mainly in K-12 education.
In inflation-adjusted dollars, Utah spent nearly $17 million less on education in 2014 than it did six years before.
State spending on juvenile justice was also down more than $12 million.
But spending on child health programs mainly Medicaid, for kids in low-income families rose more than $55 million.
Even though education funding is not yet up to 2008 levels, Miller said Utah is on track to surpass Idaho in spending, leaving that state with the lowest per- pupil spending in the country next year.
Utah spent $6,555 per pupil in 2013, $236 less than Idaho. Nationally, per-pupil spending was $10,700.
The Voices for Utah Children report does not delve into outcomes, including the fact that Utah schoolchildren score about average on most national performance measures.
That's a credit to the state, and the fact it has a high rate of two-parent families and parents willing to volunteer in classrooms, Weinstein said.
But a generation ago, Utah ranked among the top 10 states for its education effort (state funding divided by personal income) and it was among the top performers in education.
"As our inputs have fallen, the outcomes have fallen as well," Weinstein said.