State needs assessment: Few resources to help rural Utahns climb out of poverty

Julie Rosier provides an update to members of the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments’ CSBG/Food Bank Tripartite Board on March 28.
Photo by Doug McMurdo

There were few surprises revealed March 28 when the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Governments’ CSBG/Food Bank Tripartite Board met in Moab to discuss an ongoing needs assessment.

CSBG is an acronym for Community Services Block Grants, which are used – among other resources – to help the board meet its mission to help people in need become self-sufficient. SEUALG annually receives nearly $136,000 in CSBG grant funding.

SEUALG has its work cut out for it if a recent survey is any indication.

Julie Rosier, the Community Services Program manager, said respondents in the survey indicated the barriers to overcoming poverty in the four counties SEUALG represents, Grand, San Juan, Emery and Carbon, are – in order of importance – a lack of jobs, access to mental health and addiction services, affordable housing, accessible and affordable public transportation, and services to the homeless.

While the final report on the needs assessment isn’t due until July, Rosier in her comprehensive presentation to the board indicated its preliminary conclusions might have only slight changes.

According to the SEUALG analysis, January unemployment figures in Grand County were 4.3 percent. Carbon and Emery counties were at 4.4 percent and San Juan at 5.3 percent.

While the advent of tourist season has undoubtedly helped Grand County, folks living in one of the other three have seen a reversal of fortunes.

Major employers, such as mining, gas and oil extraction, power plants, trucking and warehouse companies have closed in those three counties, which has had a negative impact on secondary businesses, such as retail and restaurants that have had to lay off employees. The good news in Grand County is that there has been an uptick in job creation, but it’s been in the traditionally low-paying hospitality and travel industries.

“Without good jobs, including benefits, people cannot achieve self-sufficiency,” noted the report’s authors, who gathered their information since 2016 through town hall meetings, surveys, direct mailings and U.S. Census Bureau data. Surveys were completed on paper and online and through regular meetings with district service providers.

Mental health and addiction

Federal patient privacy laws hampered efforts to collect sufficient data in this category, but interviews with clients in various SEUALG programs showed as much as 80 percent of low-income households “experience problems with mental health and addiction,” note the authors.

Substance abuse in general is a “fairly severe issue” in the four counties, which have several private mental health counseling firms in business, but there are only two public, nonprofit agencies in the region – Four Corners Behavioral Health which operates in Grand, Emery and Carbon, while San Juan Counseling services San Juan County and the local tribal reservations.

Most low-income families have limited insurance and those that have Medicaid aren’t much better off since the federal program limits what it pays.

Public transportation

There are no public transportation options anywhere in southeastern Utah, note the authors. “A small customer base, extreme distances and a lack of funding prohibit the funding” of such transportation options.

There are many low-income people who cannot afford rent and at the same time a vehicle with the incumbent costs that go with owning one, which in turn puts them at a disadvantage when trying to land employment, shop, or make it to medical appointments. “Without public transportation low-income individuals must live close to jobs and other services, which usually increase their housing costs.”

The sky is not all grey. There are specialized transportation options for certain demographics, such as senior citizens or clients with medical care issues, note the authors.

Affordable housing

If Grand County has the jobs, it also has “severe” affordable housing issues that don’t exist in the other three counties, according to the authors. To add to the problem as it pertains to all of southeastern Utah, apartment complexes are “fairly scarce,” with most of them in Grand County – where many if not most have been turned into nightly rentals.

The paradox for low-income people who find an affordable home, is that they are usually dilapidated manufactured homes that are not eligible for subsidies or government-funded rehabilitation – and that rent for $1,000 a month in Grand County.

Little help for the homeless

The authors didn’t mince words: “The homeless population living in Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties is vastly underserved,” they wrote. “The services offered … are limited and the criteria exclude a significant portion of the homeless population.”

There is zero transitional housing or shelters in the region. In fact, there is not enough funding to cover all of the clients who request assistance – even if all they seek is a meal voucher.

For Rosier and other SEUALG representatives, the needs assessment that will be issued in the summer will likely be used as a guide moving forward, but the challenges will remain regardless: How do they continue to assist a large percentage of the population – the poverty rate in the four counties is more than 17 percent – that is growing while revenues remain stagnant?