Vol. 12. No. 3
Winter 2002

Up Front
Theresa Desmond, Editor

When writer Phil Sahm began his research into poverty-related issues for Continuum, a couple of figures leapt out at me.

One is that the federal minimum wage, which hasn't changed since 1997, is $5.15 an hour. The other is that federal guidelines suggest that a family of four lives below the poverty line if its total income is less than $18,104 a year—which breaks down to an average hourly wage of $8.70.

Clearly, working hard is not necessarily a barrier to poverty. And even being above the poverty line does not mean a family has escaped the sting of poverty.

To someone like Sonia Salari, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies who researches family policy, such numbers are nothing new. In fact, she notes, several myths about poverty still exist, including:

  • The vast majority of welfare recipients are lazy parents. In fact, two-thirds of welfare recipients are children.
  • Poor people don't work. Actually, many working parents work full time, year-round, but still can't make ends meet.
  • Declining caseloads are an indication of the success of welfare reform. "What that often means," says Salari, "is that more immigrants have been kicked off the rolls, or that people have lost welfare support because of time limits."
  • Welfare represents a large part of government budgets. Even before welfare reform, says Salari, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) represented about one percent of the federal budget and about two percent of the state budget.

So what does Salari do with such knowledge? Teaching family-policy theory in the classroom is one thing, but Salari and her colleague Lori Kowaleski-Jones wanted to find a way to make family and poverty policies more real to their students. In 2001, Salari added a service-learning component to a spring section of "Introduction to Family Policy," giving students the option of working for local nonprof-its to help them lobby for improved policies. "We wanted to encourage students to be politically active, not to be complacent, and this was a way for them to see how family policy is really made," Salari says.

Salari found that her students' work in tracking poverty-related legislation for such organizations as Utah Children and Utah Issues—on bills that affect everything from health to housing for the poor-has had a major impact on them. As one wrote in the journal participants are required to keep: "I cannot believe I was that naïve." Said another: "Climbing all those steps [to the Capitol], I felt like 'Rocky.'….There is a light inside of me I never knew was there!"

This kind of innovative service-learning course, along with ongoing research and volunteer projects, are some of the ways the U responds, directly and indirectly, to poverty-related issues, as Sahm's stories in this issue illustrate.

At the same time, the U must continue to focus on student needs. Reports by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance this summer showed, respectively, that a larger portion of family income is being spent on tuition at public institutions and that almost 170,000 top high school graduates could not enroll in college this fall because they couldn't afford it. Yet figures from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that people with a bachelor's degree earn an average of $2.1 million over their working lives, while those with a high-school degree earn an average of $1.2 million.

At the U, more than $25 million has been raised in a $35 million campaign focused solely on scholarships. In addition, notes Paul Brinkman, the U's associate vice president for budget and planning, within the significant tuition increases implemented throughout Utah's higher education system this year, some money was set aside to help needy students, over and above the $10 million in Pell Grants available. (Aside from subsidized loans, Pell Grants are the federal government's primary means for assisting low-income students. This past year, more than one in five U of U undergraduates received a Pell Grant.) These measures, along with others, are central to at least one goal of any public university: maintaining access to education and to the increased earning power it provides.


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