Salt Lake Tribune, March 16, 2008: Rate of poor children in Salt Lake City leaps to 28 percent

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By Julia Lyon

The Salt Lake Tribune

The rich smell of pasta hung in the air as kids giggled and asked for seconds on a recent afternoon at a Boys and Girls Club in downtown Salt Lake City. Dinnertime felt like playtime, but parents take it seriously.

“It lessens my grocery bill, so I know the kids aren’t going hungry,” said Tami Martinez, 29, a mother of two children at the club.

As the Wasatch Front boomed and real estate prices soared, many of the children of Salt Lake City did not share in the prosperity, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests. The poverty rate for Salt Lake City children leapt from 19 percent in 1999 to 28.4 percent in 2006, according to the American Community Survey.

The statewide poverty rate for Utah children inched up during those years, growing from 10.1 percent to 11.9 percent. Other cities, including Ogden and Provo, saw larger increases than the state rate, although the survey’s margin of error for places other than Salt Lake City makes the significance unclear.

But in the capital city, increases in poor children qualifying for discounted lunch and the demand for low-income family housing and affordable preschool indicates that families are struggling.

Newcomers in need

Advocates agree that no single reason explains why poverty is increasing among Salt Lake City children. But data experts and those


who work with struggling families say the increasing number of immigrants plays a significant role.

Minorities, chiefly Latinos, made up 61 percent of Salt Lake County’s population growth from 2000 to 2006.

Not all are immigrants, and not all are poor. But those newcomers did include a significant number of immigrants willing to do jobs such as “making beds at Grand America, [or] putting up drywall,” said Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah.

“We’ve been importing more and more people, but the people we’re importing have to do with the jobs we’re creating,” Perlich said.

Refugees are a factor, but a small one, she added. Data suggest only 10 percent of the state’s recent foreign-born immigrants are refugees.

Still, the state’s refugees often do struggle. Although the government provides a wide range of initial supports, from furniture money to first month’s rent, the families who are now coming to Utah are larger than in the past, making it more difficult to break beyond the poverty barrier.

“A family of six or seven – you’ve got to make some serious money to cross the poverty threshold when you’re talking about a refugee family in a camp for 15 years with no work history, limited employable skills, no English,” said Norman Nakamura, program specialist with the new Refugee Services Office.

Still, he adds, “My caution to that is don’t blame it on the refugees – they’re only a small part of this.”

Children in need of meals

Further evidence of the city’s poverty trend: The proportion of children who qualify for discounted lunch prices in the Salt Lake City School District has jumped almost 10 percentage points since 1999.

All of the city’s poorest schools offer two, if not three, meals a day. Many have a staff member who takes on the task of finding shoes and clothing for students in need. And if enough dollars are found, the district hopes to launch more health care and child care services at new school-based community centers.

“The reason it becomes the schools’ problem is the difficulty that children have attending to what school has to offer and benefiting when their basic needs haven’t been met,” said Laurie Lacy, the Title I supervisor at the district.

At Lincoln Elementary, where 93 percent of students come from low-income families, a small room is a pantry of hope. Opened cabinet doors reveal gloves, socks, sweaters, underwear. Stacks of deodorant and toothpaste sit on upper shelves.

In December, one little boy told his mom that he didn’t want to come to school. When Angie Fonua, the family involvement assistant, asked why, he was too embarrassed to look at her.

“I don’t have shoes that fit me,” he told her.

She used a donated gift card to buy new shoes for the boy, whose family had recently been homeless, and dropped them by his house. He’s back in class.

Children in need of care

Mary Knight, who has lived in Salt Lake City off and on for 15 years, sends her 5-year-old and 8-year-old to the Capitol West Boys and Girls club for $10 per child a year.

That allows the mother, who dreams of starting a vending machine business, to keep a full-time job and save hundreds of dollars each month on child care. Her two kids eat dinner at the club three nights a week.

“That’s like three days a week I’m like I know they’ll eat there and be OK,” the mother said.

She estimates the meals at the “Kids Cafe” save $20 on her $60 a week grocery bill. Run by the Utah Food Bank, its volunteers served 164,163 meals last fiscal year at 19 sites, primarily in Salt Lake City.

More and more parents also want to take advantage of the Salt Lake Community Action Program Head Start, which offers education to area 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Free for low-income parents, it can take years, and luck, to get in.

Though city numbers are not available, the waiting list in Salt Lake and Tooele counties soared from 74 in 2001-2002 to 522 in 2007-2008. Part of the jump has to do with improved tracking, but a larger share has to do with the economy.

“The service industry positions usually pay minimum wage and have hours that do not coincide with raising a healthy family,” said Nicole Droitsch, a Head Start community partnerships manager. “Parents are desperate to get their children in a quality education program.”

Children in need of homes

Another explanation may simply be that poorer families were left behind as open fields gave birth to subdivisions.

“It may be the more affordable housing stock for low-income families is in the city,” said Sheila Walsh-McDonald, a low income advocate with the Salt Lake Community Action Program.

At the Salt Lake City Housing Authority, the number of families waiting for affordable housing grew by almost 2,000 in the last two years, going from 5,426 at the end of 2005 to 7,295 in 2007.

Whatever the reasons, child poverty has consequences, said Karen Crompton, executive director of Voices for Utah Children, a child advocacy organization.

“One of the things people need to recognize is that poverty is probably the most significant predictor for negative outcomes for kids,” said Crompton, referring to teen pregnancy, incarceration and education.

“So we pay a huge price for not addressing longer-term solutions,” she said.

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