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Children are the key to breaking the chain of poverty that keeps families in economic distress for one generation after another.

Youngsters who are afforded safe environments, good nutrition and early education in preschool and kindergarten are better equipped to learn as they enter elementary school and more likely to graduate high school and pursue advanced training.

That is at the crux of what the Utah Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission set out to do four years ago: find solutions to the plague of poverty handed down from parent to child and so on over decades.

In its fourth annual report, issued Thursday, the commission estimates that 48,000 Utah children are stuck in the cycle of poverty and welfare dependence. An additional 230,000 children are at risk of entering the poverty cycle.

That reflects a modest drop from one year ago, when those numbers were 52,000 and 236,000, respectively.

Nonetheless, the amount of children in — or at risk of experiencing — intergenerational poverty constitutes almost a third of all Utah children. And, according to the report, 26 percent to 35 percent of kids menaced by poverty also suffer abuse or neglect.

The drop is due, in part, to Utah's improving economy, said Tracy Gruber, senior adviser for the Intergenerational Poverty Initiative.

Because it is a long-term program that looks to break the generational cycle, Gruber said, real results will take time — although there will be visible benchmarks along the way, including how well children in this group perform in school.

Among the commission's charters is enabling collaboration and data sharing among social service agencies, including identifying clients of those agencies.

"The emphasis to use data to determine where resources need to be prioritized is very important," Gruber said.

The legislation that created the commission was spearheaded by former state Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, who characterized its motives as saving the underprivileged from a life of misery and despair.

It also would potentially save a lot of money in welfare and incarceration costs.

Reid said it is important to distinguish between situational — or short-term — poverty and intergenerational poverty. Treating these different types of poverty the same is helpful to those suffering situational poverty, he noted, but it doesn't always help those whose plight spans generations.

Although Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country, particularly when it comes to social welfare, the Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act was passed in 2012 with large support in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Under that legislation, the Department of Workforce Services (DWS) tracks impoverished children at risk of remaining in poverty as adults to gain a greater understanding of the phenomenon, according to the commission's report.

That is crucial, Reid explained. "It has to be a coordinated effort, rather than each agency doing its own thing."

The program has gathered data from the Department of Human Services, Division of Child & Family Services, Division of Juvenile Justice Services, and Utah Office of Education, among others.

The data have allowed analysts to look back over four generations of impoverished Utahns.

There are four areas DWS considers crucial for success.

The first is to support new parents, whose role is critical to children's development. High rates of abuse and neglect demonstrate an important need to provide basic parenting skills.

Second, the commission seeks policies to ensure children are on the path to healthy development by receiving timely screenings for disabilities and developmental delays.

The commission also set as a priority the placement of young children in safe and developmentally appropriate settings. Children should receive quality care to ensure they develop appropriate social, emotional and behavioral skills to prepare them for school.

The initiative also highlights the preparation of young children to enter kindergarten through enrollment in high-quality preschool settings.

A 28-family pilot program in Ogden, called Next Generation Kids, is testing these recommendations and coordinating services for families, rather than individuals.

"This isn't about new programs and new money," said Karla Aguirre, who directs the Next Generation Kids program. "It's about aligning services we already have to better serve families."

Many of the families in intergenerational poverty are single moms with kids. In the Next Generation Kids program, each family has a caseworker who helps them find resources within their communities, Aguirre said.

"What it does for us as an agency is it gives us a new focus," she said. "There is a family behind that person who walks in [seeking assistance]."

It's challenging work, according to Gruber. But Utah, she said, has made the commitment to break the cycle of poverty.