Utah needs a child-centered approach to fighting poverty

Utah is proud to be a data-driven state. Our policymakers want to make good decisions based on good data. But new research focused on teenagers living in intergenerational poverty (IGP) seems to reveal that Utah’s long-standing approach is outdated and missing the mark.

New multi-state research commissioned by the Georgia Center for Opportunity and Utah’s Next Generation Freedom Fund suggests it’s time to reevaluate state IGP policy goals. The new research, conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies just this fall, interviewed teenagers (12-18) living in IGP and their parents. The study’s objective was to really know and understand the IGP “customer” from the inside out.

How do we break the cycle of intergenerational poverty without really knowing the thoughts, hopes, dreams, daily existence and attitudes of the people living it? We don’t. And this lack of deeper understanding may well explain why IGP is on the increase in Utah (16% rise since 2011) even at a time when our Utah economy is booming.

The new research challenges many existing assumptions. For instance, Utah’s IGP approach for seven years has focused on “two-gen” policies relying heavily on parental improvements that trickle down to then improve the lives of their children. The new research confirms the unanimous conclusion of legislators in 2011: Parents can substantially contribute to the problem and effective solutions must focus exclusively on the children.

As most teens feel pressure and stress to do well in school, graduate, and get a job, IGP teens don’t feel that pressure to the same degree. The research shows that IGP teens are being removed from the burden of high expectations in life. Most IGP teens and their parents see nothing wrong with their current situations and these teens actually rate their lives better than the average American teen. Only one-quarter of IGP teens would be dissatisfied to end up at the same station in life as their parents.

A whopping 66 percent of parents in the deepest end of the IGP pool – those households experiencing higher rates of dysfunction – think their lives are on “solid footing.” Moreover, the lives of these IGP teens are more insular meaning they prefer to spend time alone or with immediate family leaving them with a very limited worldview. This “solid footing” for IGP teens includes 65 percent living in homes where utilities have been turned off.

Providing alternative adult examples, such as mentors outside of poverty, is essential to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. While 42 percent of IGP teens and 43 percent of their parents believe you can be self-sufficient and receive aid from the government, the same number from both groups believe that relying on advice from others means you are not self-sufficient.

Furthermore, a significant number of IGP parents believe the most important and challenging part of their children’s success is dependent on “qualifying for public assistance programs.”

These findings should not lead policymakers to dwell on the failures of IGP parents. Rather, these findings reinforce what legislators in 2011 unanimously agreed with: Breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty must be a child-centric, not adult-centric, effort. Any other objective becomes a systemic barrier to success in the lives of these children.

Programs designed for situational poverty cannot serve well children trapped in intergenerational poverty because they do not provide the tools and examples children need to change the way they approach life’s challenges.

Increasing numbers of Utahns living in IGP, as provided in the 2018 report of the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission, belie state agency assumptions that they need “to ensure those children are experiencing success from existing systems in the same way other Utah children experience it.”

In truth, this new research reaffirms that children living in IGP require a whole different experience, new systems and updated responses from state policymakers.

Salt Lake Tribune

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