ST. GEORGE – A coalition of public, private and government organizations is aiming to break the cycle of poverty in Washington County.
In the county, more than 45 percent of children are either currently living in poverty or at risk for intergenerational poverty, which continues from one generation to the next.
Local leaders came together in May 2016 to hear Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox speak on the matter, and they have been meeting regularly ever since to form a plan of action focusing on education, health, early childhood development and family economic stability.
As part of the plan, volunteer “allies” will offer a variety of support and training to families for about 18 months.
“That’s proven to be a successful model in helping people kind of break out of poverty,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said.
Iverson called these volunteers alternately advocates, allies and mentors.
“Somebody they can kind of rely on to help them,” he said. “Whether it’s job training that they need or other things like that.”
The initiative focuses on children, Iverson said, and the Washington County School District will be an important part of the effort.
“We’re going to be working very closely with the school district rolling this out,” he said.
Regarding intergenerational poverty, local leaders identified the highest concentration according to elementary school, Iverson said, adding that he first step will be to work with Washington Elementary School.
“The power of what we’re doing is bringing people together,” Iverson said.
Eighteen different organizations are involved in the intergenerational poverty initiative in Washington County, including:
- Southwest Public Health
- United Ways of Utah
- Washington County School District
- Work Force Services
- Utah State University Extension Office
- Dixie State University
- Southwest Behavioral Health
- Five County Association of Governments
- Intermountain Healthcare
- Juvenile Justice Services
- Sun Country Home Solutions
- Southern Utah University Head Start
- St. George City
- Interfaith Council
- Dove Center
- The Learning Center for Families
- Division of Child and Family Services
“What we’re doing now that we haven’t been doing is that we’re all kind of working together and talking to each other and sharing resources in a way that we haven’t done,” Iverson said.
Immediate steps outlined in the plan include increasing the availability of preschool and Head Start programs and establishing a mentoring program for parents.
Five-year county goals include enrolling children in health insurance, having an afterschool computer science program in every Title I school – those with high numbers of students from low-income families – and increased family stability.
The Switchpoint Community Resource Center, along with Executive Director Carol Hollowell, will be heavily involved in the antipoverty effort, Iverson said.
The initiative will use a national mentoring model known as “Circles USA,” which Switchpoint is already using. The program is designed for struggling and recently homeless families and is intended to teach participants how to establish connections and resources through allies.
Switchpoint began using the Circles program in November 2014, and it has already been successful in helping 78 families by giving them the tools to help them understand what Hollowell called the hidden rules of the middle class.
“If you’re into a four-generation-deep cycle of poverty, the only way to stop it is to put the brakes on that family and teach them the core thoughts of middle-class thinking,” Hollowell said in an earlier interview. “We’re trying to get them to grow their circle of friends so they can increase their opportunities.”
The Circles class gives those living in poverty the opportunity to work with allies who can help them with anything from interview skills such as language, diction and even how to dress properly to money management and budgeting skills. It helps them learn how to play the game better, Hollowell said.
The program lasts 18 months, after which families who complete the Circles class can return as mentors and refer other families who can benefit from the program.
Watch the Circles program in action here.
The directive to fight poverty comes from the state level. The Utah Legislature adopted the Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act five years ago. It recognizes that children in the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency lack the stability and opportunity to overcome their circumstances.
The act directs the Department of Workforce Services to track intergenerational poverty statistics and share the information with other state agencies, including the departments of Health and Human Services, Workforce Services, Juvenile Courts and Education.
Washington County is in the top 10 Utah counties for having the highest rate of children at risk for intergenerational poverty.
Low paying service jobs, coupled with high housing costs, is partially to blame for Washington County’s poverty rate, Hollowell said, adding that about 80 percent of the population at Switchpoint are “working poor.”
They have jobs, Hollowell said, but because of “outlandish” rent increases, especially since January of this year, they can’t afford a place to live and have nowhere else to go.
It is the hope of the intergenerational poverty initiative to help 500 families in a five-year goal, Hollowell said, in part by creating pods all over the county where the Circles program can be implemented.
It is a key focus in breaking the cycle of poverty, Hollowell said.
St. George News reporter Hollie Reina contributed to this report.
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