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What if taxpayers could save money on such things as welfare programs and incarceration costs by addressing the problems encountered by children born into poverty like their parents and their grandparents before them?
Provided with nutrition, health care, a safe environment and education, children born into a tradition of poverty and its attendant ills can grow up to be productive members of society who pay taxes rather than receive welfare or go to prison, said state Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, in a recent interview.
Seeking solutions to this "intergenerational" poverty is Reid's brainchild, and he argues that the 3-year-old program ought not to be labeled "progressive," but should be seen for what it is: "We are saving them from a life of misery and despair," he said. "With the right support, these children can all succeed."
Taxpayers, too, could be winners, he added.
Although Utah is one of the most conservative states in the country, particularly when it comes to social welfare, Reid said his Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act was passed in 2012 with overwhelming 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 third annual "Report on Intergenerational Poverty, Welfare Dependency and the Use of Public Assistance," released Tuesday.
"The Utah Legislature recognized that there are high societal and economic costs of allowing generations of families to remain in poverty," the report said. "This jeopardizes not only their future but the state's future in lost human capital, should it fail to implement programs and policies designed to end the cycle of poverty for Utah children."
Reid noted in an interview that Utah is the only state examining poverty as a generation-to-generation phenomenon as a way to alleviate indigence.
The program, still in its infancy, 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.
Jon Pierpont, the director of DWS that oversees the program, said the data have allowed analysts to look back over four generations of impoverished Utahns.
Based on that information, the Utah Intergenerational Welform Reform Commission, also created by Reid's legislation, has focused on four areas for recommended policies.
The first of those is to support new parents, whose role is critical to a child's development. "The high rates of abuse and neglect experienced by children in poverty demonstrate an important need to provide basic parenting skills," the report said.
Second, the commission seeks policies to ensure young 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, regardless of income, should be cared for in settings that will offer quality care to ensure children develop appropriate social, emotional and behavioral skills to prepare them for school and life," the report said.
And the commission highlighted the preparation of young children to enter kindergarten. "Expand opportunities for young children in poverty for enrollment in high-quality preschool settings in all areas of the state, including rural communities," the report recommended.
Among other things, DWS is creating a pilot program in Ogden among several dozen willing families in poverty.
"We will align services for these families to see what works and what doesn't," Pierpont said.
DWS is in the process of developing a five-year and a 10-year plan that would set out more specifically which programs to offer to which families, depending on their circumstances.
• 52,073 children are already experiencing intergenerational poverty with an additional 236,056 kids at risk. Combined, that is equivalent to 33 percent of Utah's child population.
• 89 percent of the children experiencing intergenerational poverty are 12-years old or younger.
• All of those children have education-related indicators well below state averages.
• Nearly 28 percent of the adults in intergenerational poverty were victims of abuse and neglect as children and 26 percent of their children have been victims of abuse and neglect.
Source: "Report on Intergenerational Poverty, Welfare Dependency and the Use of Public Assistance" for the Utah Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission.