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OPINION - "Utah Women and Poverty: We Should All Care"

BOX ELDER COUNTY - By Dr. Susan R. Madsen, Headliner Guest Columnist, October 10, 2022

The idea of living below the poverty line is a fearful thought for many Utah women. But in Utah, for over a third of single mothers with children under five, this is a reality. In my work with the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP), we are looking to better understand the reasons for, and the effects of, poverty among Utah women—including women in Box Elder County.

UWLP research has revealed information about what influences the poverty rates in Utah. Women’s marital status is one of the clearest factors affecting women’s poverty levels. Sadly, 36.4% of single mothers in Utah with children under 5 years old live in poverty. And 27.4% of single mothers—with children ages 18 or younger living with them—live at or below the poverty line. Comparatively, married couple households in Utah are much less likely to live in poverty (only 5.7%).

Gender, race, age, and residence location are also factors. Utah has nearly the highest gender wage gap in the U.S. ranking second to last. Women in Utah earn 30.9% less than men and consequently, they bring home $19,000 less income annually. White women face less poverty than their Black, Asian American, Native American, and Pacific counterparts. Across the board, young adult women and women over 75 also show a higher percentage of poverty. Even your location might affect your poverty level as women living in rural communities like Brigham City and Tremonton have lower incomes than women who live in more populous counties. Other factors include lower education levels, intergenerational poverty, and the high cost of childcare.

Men and women face different rates of poverty, even when experiencing the same circumstances. One reason for this is that women are more likely to work at minimum wage or have part-time jobs which often come with no benefits. Also, women who choose to stay at home as a caregiver do not qualify for social security benefits of their own, making it essential to work past the traditional retirement age.

One of the most impactful ways to reduce the poverty level individually is pursuing postsecondary education. Working to achieve Utah’s goal for two of every three adults to have a degree or trade certificate will directly affect Utah’s poverty rate. Women with vocational skills can earn a livable wage. Specialized focus on first-generation students can help break the pattern of intergenerational poverty. Further examination of ways for improvement should remain a priority.

Because poverty affects everyone in some way in our neighborhoods, communities, and state, it will take leaders and residents working together to find improved solutions. As we collaborate to reduce poverty rates among Utah women, our efforts will positively benefit individual families and the State of Utah as a whole.

Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.


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