OGDEN — Melissa Freigang is on a mission — to help Weber County stay one step ahead of poverty and to help kids from low-income backgrounds steer clear of poverty as they grow into adults.
County leaders hired her to direct the new Prosperity Center of Excellence, a post she assumed just this week to spearhead county efforts to wrestle with intergenerational poverty and assist others in Weber County living on the margins. She had worked for the county in fighting poverty as a private consultant with Layton-based LSI Business Development. Now she becomes a county employee, working in tandem with Weber County commissioners, the Weber-Morgan Health Department and Weber Human Services.
- What do you think about the hiring of Melissa Freigang and Weber County's approach in fighting poverty? Scroll to the poll at the bottom of the story and sound off.
County commissioners have put an increased focus on fighting intergenerational poverty in recent years, and Freigang’s hiring and creation of the Prosperity Center of Excellence reflect a new phase of the effort. The Standard-Examiner reported last month on county plans to hire a new leader to help in the fight on poverty, ahead of Freigang’s naming.
“We’re putting more focus on it. We’re trying to get a handle on it before it gets away from us,” said County Commissioner Scott Jenkins.
As part of the change, Jenkins said the county won’t renew it’s $60,000-a-year contract with LSI, initially approved a year ago amid some contention over use of private-sector consultants by county government. Instead, Freigang, with a base salary of $107,994 a year, will lead the charge. She’ll be the sole Prosperity Center of Excellence representative, though she’ll work with Weber-Morgan Health Department and Weber Human Services staffers. As her efforts evolve and, officials hope, more grant money comes in, Jenkins said they’ll decide whether to expand the center of excellence.
According to undated Utah Department of Workforce Services figures, 10% of kids in Weber County are living in intergenerational poverty, or IGP, the highest rate along the Wasatch Front, exceeding the rates in Box Elder, Davis, Morgan, Salt Lake and Tooele counties. IGP is poverty that extends from one generation to the next, and DWS measures it based on the length of time individuals and families rely on public assistance.
Some 23% of kids in Weber County are at risk of remaining in poverty as adults, according to the DWS figures. Moreover, Weber County has a higher concentration of homelessness than the state as a whole, a higher rate even than much more urbanized Salt Lake County, according to a recent Weber Housing Authority study. Downtown Ogden, meantime, had the third-highest death rate from drug overdoses in Utah between 2015 and 2017, according to Utah Department of Health data.
In a statement, Weber-Morgan Health Department Executive Director Brian Bennion referenced the range of social issues he hopes Freigang and the Prosperity Center of Excellence can address. The center, he said, is “an opportunity to align all our efforts to better address the quality of life for those who struggle with poverty, housing, access to healthy foods and other areas that affect health and well-being.”
Freigang, chosen from a field of 29 candidates, said she sees her role as working with existing social service agencies to better coordinate strategies and efforts to help those in need. She put a particular focus on getting “upstream” of poverty, that is, helping kids lift themselves from the margins as adults, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Among other things, she’ll continue a new county program she helped launch while with LSI that calls for assisting 35 Ogden families mired in poverty, the Integrated Community Action Now initiative, or I-CAN.
Similarly, Jenkins noted the ripple effect from helping adults in poverty. “We are entering their lives, identifying and fostering skill sets, getting them jobs and building confidence. This confidence then resounds in their children as they look to tackle the world,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Harvey noted Freigang’s efforts while a contractor with LSI in securing two grants for the county last year totaling $381,000, offsetting by a wide margin the $60,000 cost of the contract with the firm. Commissioner Gage Froerer said the new hire will help make government more efficient, streamlining the various county efforts targeting poverty.