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Along with 33 other states and Washington D.C., Utah experienced a drop in the poverty rate of 12.7% in 2013 to 11.7% in 2014. The percentage of children in poverty also saw a significant drop to 13.3% from 14.8% in 2013. Despite heavy opposition since it’s passage in 2010, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has led to a significant decrease in the uninsured rate in every state, including Utah, since 2013. Even states such as Utah that have not expanded Medicaid have seen a decrease in the amount of uninsured. However, Utah still has the 15th highest uninsured rate in the nation leaving approximately 279,000 people without health care coverage. The rate of children who lack health care coverage has not changed since 2013 and remains essentially flat at 9.4% - which means nearly 85,000 children in Utah are going without much-needed health care coverage – which leaves Utah in 47th place when it comes to insuring children.

So while things are improving for much of the nation and Utah in terms of poverty, there is still so much more that Utah can do to help those who struggle with poverty to find financial stability and self-sufficiency.

Some other areas of great concern for organizations that work to end poverty in Utah are poverty rates among those without basic education and single mothers. For those who lack a high school diploma or equivalency, the poverty rate is 20.7%. The rate is cut nearly in half at 11.2% for those who have a high school diploma or GED. Female-headed households without a spouse present see some of the highest poverty rates; in households with children under 18 the poverty rate is 36.9%, and households with children under five years only, the rate is a staggering 49.6%. Making sure that basic education is adequately funded and made easily available and strengthening programs that support struggling parents are necessary to assure strong, financially stable families in Utah.

As Utah’s population becomes more diverse, policy makers need to pay particular attention to the disparity of opportunity and achievement for racial and ethnic minorities. While the poverty rate of those in Utah who are white alone (not Hispanic), the poverty rate is only 9.0% where the poverty rate among Hispanic or Latino individuals of any race is 23.6%.

Utah also has the fourth largest gender pay gap in the country with women workers earning 70 cents for every dollar her male counterpart earns. The median income of working females over 25 with a bachelor's degree in Utah is $31,104. For men (all other info the same) the median income is $60,794.

Utah prides itself on being a fiscally responsible state and its efforts to contain costs and manage the state in an efficient manner should be applauded. If our goal as a state is to have as many people contributing to society as possible, we need to do more to help people achieve self-sufficiency by providing them adequate health care, safe and affordable housing, jobs that pay wages a family can support itself on, and the education needed to get those jobs. “When a parent can work 40 hours a week and still only make $15,000 a year, we need to examine our state policies on wages. For many of our low-wage workers in Utah, simply finding a better job is not an option if they lack the education needed for a higher-paying job. Providing access to high-quality education at all ages and stages of life is critical to build and maintain a strong workforce,” says Barbara Muñoz, Policy Analyst at Community Action Partnership of Utah.

The Annual Report on Poverty (available online here) also provides county-specific data to show the disparities between geographic areas within the state. The county with the lowest poverty rate is Morgan County with a rate of only 4.8% while one in three people who live in San Juan County are living in poverty whose rate is 28.1%.

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If you are a regular watcher of The Daily Show you may have heard that Salt Lake City “has ended homelessness.” The comedian/Daily Show correspondent, Hasan Minhaj, came to Salt Lake City several months ago to do a feature on the state’s initiative to provide housing and services to our chronic homeless. But likely in an effort to produce something that works for television, the show included footage of Minhaj searching for homeless on the streets of Salt Lake who declared that he couldn’t find a single homeless individual. Utah has much to celebrate in terms of their efforts, but the spin that the Daily Show put on the story did not do our homeless (who are still very much present in Salt Lake and throughout the state) any favors.

Several years ago, agencies working with homeless populations in Utah decided to focus resources and research about how to help a specific portion of the population; those considered chronically homeless.

According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, “The government defines homelessness as chronic when people have been on the streets for more than a year at a time, or homeless four times in the past three years. They also must have been reliably diagnosed with a major debilitating condition such mental or physical illness, alcoholism or drug dependency.” The article goes on to declare that Utah’s chronic homeless rate has dropped from 1,932 to 178 in 10 years due to the concerted efforts to help this population find housing and other needed resources.

This success is certainly worth celebrating. The Daily Show recently featured Utah’s efforts in a humorous yet poignant light. If you haven’t seen the video, you can watch it here. One of the drawbacks of all of the attention being focused on Utah’s success in terms of working to help the chronically homeless, is that the specifics may be cloudy and nuance of how chronic homelessness differs from other types of more acute homelessness may be lost. There could be a tendency on the part of the public to assume our issues with homelessness have been solved because The Daily Show said so.

The fact is, in 2014 chronic homeless made up only 3.9% of Utah’s homeless population. Forty six percent of our homeless are in families, 10% are veterans, and 36% are domestic violence victims. The total number of homeless in Utah in 2014 was approximately 13,621. The state office that conducts the annual homeless count estimates the actual number of people who experience homelessness at some time during the year is actually higher (You can read more about this in our Annual Poverty Report).

Among those agencies and coalitions who are aware how real our problem is here in Utah and particularly in metropolitan areas such as Salt Lake City, Ogden, and Provo new solutions are being discussed. The Pioneer Park Coalition recently hosted a town hall with a consultant who has been promoting the idea of “homeless campuses” –an idea that has been controversial among some service providers and human rights’ advocates as a campus setup would “wall off” homeless form the greater community.

In a recent Salt Lake City Council meeting, the council voted to hire eight social workers who will collaborate with homeless service providers and the SLPD to help homeless in Salt Lake City find employment and connect them with services available to them.

Perhaps the most significant step that Utah leaders can take almost immediately to help the thousands of Utahns who struggle with homelessness is expand Medicaid. With the Supreme Court ruling on Thursday holding up the segment of the ACA that provides tax subsidies to low-income families purchasing insurance through the Federal exchange, Utah has one less excuse not to move forward with providing health care to low-income Utahns.

Homelessness in Utah is still very real and there is still much work to be done. With changes coming to Salt Lake City government during election season and new efforts on the part of government agencies, nonprofit service providers, and the Salt Lake City Police Department, those who see first-hand the struggles of those living on the streets and in shelters can only hope that much-needed services are provided to those in need and that the safety of those who live and work in the downtown area will be taken into account as well. I wish for the sake of those sleeping on the hard cement with every last belonging clutched to their chest, that solving these problems were as easy as the The Daily Show makes it seem. But it’s just not that simple.

- Barbara Munoz, Policy Analyst 

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