Despite increase, Utah poverty still below average

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    By NATE HAWLEY

    Clutching to his sign and standing on a corner in downtown Salt Lake City, “John” hopes friendly passers-by will spare a dollar or two.

    Living on the streets, searching for food and relying on the goodness of others, he understands poverty.

    Reminiscent of scenes across the country, “John” is not alone in his fight with poverty. Although most Utahns do not end up on the streets, poverty is an ever-increasing occurrence in Utah.

    Nearly 30 percent of Utah’s population lives near or below the poverty line according to the most recent reports. With the population of the state growing each year, so are its economic problems. According to recent statistics, poverty, unemployment, hunger and the inability to afford decent housing are disturbing trends affecting the state.

    Utah Issues, an advocacy group that tracks poverty and other economic issues, released a report in early March detailing the state of Utah’s economy. In the report, using data collected by the United States Census Bureau, it stated 200,000 Utahns, or 10 percent of the population, live below the poverty line. Another 400,000, or 18 percent of the population, are “functionally” poor.

    “There are many who are not officially poor, but are still struggling,” said Sarah Wilhelm, fiscal policy analyst at Utah Issues. “We call that functional poverty, when they just don’t have enough to make ends meet.”

    The dollar amount of income earned to be at or below the poverty line is determined each year by the Department of Health and Human Services. According to the 2004 numbers, a family of four earning $18,850 or less would be considered living in poverty.

    “Functionally” poor indicates the household earns between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty line income, so a family of four earning $37,700 or less fits into this category.

    “We’ve looked at a lot of studies and have found that what it actually costs for a family to live is about twice as much as the poverty line,” Wilhelm said.

    According to the Census Bureau, the rise in poverty from 2001 to 2002 in Utah was 1.1 percent, but even with such an increase in the number of Utahns living in poverty, the state’s percentage of people living in poverty is still below the national average, which is hovering around 11.7 percent.

    “Jumps in the number of people living in poverty are pretty new,” Wilhelm said. “In fact Utah historically has had really low poverty rates and we still have a pretty low poverty rate, but the fact that we had this big jump last year is really kind of concerning.”

    Additionally, the rate of child poverty, children under the age of 18 living below the poverty line, rose from 8.8 percent in 2001 to 13.1 percent in 2002 according to Utah Issue’s report.

    “Children are more likely to be poor than the population as a whole,” Wilhelm said. “As families get bigger, it takes more income to take care of more children. One wage earner in the family may not be in poverty with just one child, but with four children, the family is more likely to be in poverty.”

    Although Wilhelm said it is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of the increase of poverty, she identified unemployment and low wages as contributing problems.

    Curt Stewart, public information officer with the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said Utah’s job outlook is better than it was a few months ago, but could still improve.

    He said February’s unemployment rate was at 4.8 percent, down more than a full percentage point from February 2003 when it reached 5.9 percent.

    “Four or five years ago we had a really robust economy where unemployment was around 2 percent,” Stewart said. “Years ago when people saw 5 percent unemployment when they were used to seeing 9 and 6 and 7 percents, people were saying 5 percent unemployment is just kind of the normal rate for the country’s economy. Its kind of like saying full employment is having 5 percent unemployment, but we know we can do better.”

    Stewart said it is difficult to know exactly what caused the drop in unemployment, but a sharp rise in temporary work alleviated some of the unemployment burden.

    As the nation’s economy is beginning to bounce back and expand, Stewart said not many jobs are being created and many are terming it a “job-less recovery.”

    “The temporary jobs could be seasonal jobs from a good snow year. The resorts stayed open longer and hired more people this year,” Stewart said. “When you have an upswing in temporary jobs, it is promising because maybe those temporary jobs will turn into full-time jobs.”

    Of those who do have jobs in Utah, they are paid less than their counterparts in other areas of the country. According to Utah Issues, only about half of all jobs in Utah pay above the poverty level, and pay their employees roughly 20 percent less than the national average.

    Perhaps as a result of these other factors, the United States Department of Agriculture ranked Utah first in “food insecurity” in 2002. Just over 15 percent of all Utah households experience at least some insecurity and nearly 5 percent of those households have to skip meals because they do not have enough money to eat. Nationally about 11 percent of households experience “food insecurity,” while about 3 percent experience hunger.

    Suanne Buggy, spokeswoman for the Food and Nutrition Services Division of the USDA, said as government nutrition programs assisting the food insecure expand, more people are able to get the nutritional help they need.

    “Most of the programs are for low income persons and families,” Buggy said. “The biggest one is the food stamp program and then under the special nutrition program, the one most people have heard the most about, is the school lunch program.”

    Over the years, the number of programs available to assist the poor has grown tremendously. In addition to nutrition programs, the government also has programs to help find affordable and adequate housing.

    “The federal government has established what we call area median incomes throughout the country,” said Gene Carly, director of the Utah County Housing Authority. “The Utah County area has a median income schedule and anyone under 50 percent of that income adjusted by family size would be eligible for a program.”

    Wilhelm said Utah Issues found 43 percent of all Utah renters could not afford fair market value on a two-bedroom apartment and would possibly qualify for the government aid.

    As poverty increases, “John” is not the only one suffering from it in Utah. Nor is poverty as easily seen in all cases as it is in his, but rather the current unemployment and low wages have led to the increase in poverty, poor nutrition and poor housing characteristic of the impoverished that has taken over the lives of nearly 30 percent of Utahns.

    “Utah was the only western state that saw an increase in the poverty rate,” the Utah Issue report stated. “All told, the economic situation made it very difficult for families struggling to avoid poverty. Wages were flat, jobs did not keep pace with population growth, families’ assets declined and credit card debt grew.”

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