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Utah nonprofit finds ways to overcome barriers when escaping poverty

By Cara MacDonald, KSL.com | Posted - Jun. 7, 2019 at 1:30 p.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY — Though Utah continues to grow its economy, those living in poverty still struggle. In response, Utah nonprofits are galvanizing to find ways to help families attain a comfortable living wage.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that in 2018, 9.7% of Utahns were living in poverty, meaning they didn't make enough money to live on without government assistance. For a family of four, that would mean they have an income of under $25,750 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Circles Salt Lake, an organization working to help families escape poverty, is part of an effort that has been fairly successful nationally. Benjamin Sessions, executive director for Circles Salt Lake, told KSL.com, “Circles uses a large volunteer base of upper- and middle-class families that volunteer their time, as a family, to work with refugees as well as native-born Utahns in poverty currently.”

Sessions believes the biggest barrier to families trying to exit poverty is what they call the “cliff effect,” which is when a parent or couple doesn’t work because they are afraid of losing their government benefits.

“Sometimes we’ll talk to people who say, ‘I’m going to get a raise to $15 an hour, but if I get that raise then I’ll lose my benefits and my kids won’t have health care or dental care,'” Sessions explained. “And so one of the ways we believe we can help with that self-sufficiency is using a graduated system that doesn’t penalize families and gives them a little time to get them through that cliff effect barrier. I think we’d see a greater success rate if we could use that.”

Without being able to implement the graduated system yet, Sessions said Circles Salt Lake seeks to help families escape poverty by wrapping a “circle” of support around families living in intergenerational poverty. They do this by matching impoverished families with families with middle- or upper-class incomes, and those mentors help support those who are struggling.

“The families who volunteer are absolutely critical,” Sessions said. “We call them ally families, and they are the main reason there are so many who transition out of poverty. They feel supported. They feel loved. They feel like they can do it. They have someone in their head regularly telling them they can make it, get out, get a better job, get an education. That’s where we see the magic happen.”

The families meet two to four times per month on Thursday evenings and focus on setting goals and breaking through barriers to employment and education. Sessions said that the model has seen a “good success rate nationally.”

Nonetheless, Sessions believes there is always more that can be done on a local, state and national level.

Other nonprofits working to help Utahns living in poverty include Utahns Against Hunger, Voices for Utah Children, United Way Salt Lake, Project Embrace, Utah Nonprofit Housing Corporation and more.

Cara MacDonald

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