Right On: Utah and the American Dream

Composite image, includes image by SIphotography / iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

OPINION — Is Utah the home of the American Dream? For many yes, for others undoubtedly no. But on a number of quantitative measures, Utah comes closer than any other state.

The essence of the American Dream is that someone born poor can, with hard work and a little luck, become affluent or at least reasonably well off.

In a detailed and highly technical paper titled “Where Is the Land of Opportunity?” Raj Chetty of Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research along with three colleagues examined where intergenerational economic mobility is occurring.

They identified cities and states where children from families in the lowest 20 percent of income were most likely to have incomes in the top 20 percent as adults. On that measure, the Salt Lake City metro area is first in the country. Surprised?

A child in Salt Lake City has a 10.8 percent chance to be in the top 20 percent of incomes as an adult. That’s comparable to the highest in the world, Denmark’s 11.7 percent.

Chetty and his colleagues found that American high mobility areas have (1) less economic segregation, (2) less income inequality, (3) better primary schools, (4) greater social capital and (5) greater family stability.

Less economic segregation

My first reaction to this factor was probably much like yours. Salt Lake City has both upscale and lower income neighborhoods. Same is true of St. George. Yes, but these neighborhoods tend to be scattered around Utah cities in ways less common in other states.

Utah schools, parks and churches are more likely to be frequented by children and their parents from a mix of economic circumstances. Chetty found this social interaction influences children’s future prospects.

Less income inequality

Utah is working hard to lift its bottom 20 percent into the middle class.

In 2005, Utah set a goal to eliminate chronic homelessness, those who had been on the street for over a year or repeatedly for several years. As reported on National Public Radio, the state’s Housing First initiative had almost accomplished that goal by 2015. Chronic homelessness has decreased by 91 percent. Utah was the first state to take such a housing program statewide.

Utah continues to tackle income inequality with its more recent Intergenerational Poverty Initiative. As part of the statewide effort, St. George News reported on Washington County’s multiagency effort to bust the local poverty cycle.

Read more: County rolls out multi-agency effort to bust cycle of poverty

Also reported in St. George News, Utah Governor Herbert recently kicked off an initiative to bring 25,000 jobs to the state’s poorer rural counties.

For young adults starting out in life, WalletHub ranks Utah as the sixth best state in the country for millennials.

Better primary schools

As reported in U.S. News, Utah is ranked as the ninth best state for education. But Utah has an even more important factor in its favor.

Chetty’s study found that the best predictor of income mobility was the distance between the upper middle class and the poor. David Sims, a Brigham Young economist, said the secret to Utah’s excellent mobility is how broad its middle class is.

Sims found that differing states, school districts and levels of funding made almost no difference to similar groups of students. What mattered was exposing students to “social networks” that were different than the ones they found at home. Read more here.

When children from poorer families rub shoulders at school with the children of professionals and businessmen, they develop a different view of what’s possible. Salt Lake City’s world-class economic mobility shows that this works.

Greater social capital

All states have church and civic groups that provide social services in their communities. But Utah has an extraordinary spirit of volunteerism.

Utah ranks first in the country in the percentage of adults who volunteer their time. Utah’s volunteerism builds a widespread sense of community and care for others that is often lacking elsewhere.

For example, the International Rescue Committee whose predecessor organization was founded by Albert Einstein, has 5,000 volunteers across the country; 1,200 of them are in the Salt Lake City area.

Greater family stability

Chetty’s data shows that having two married parents is a major factor in economic mobility.

Utah is first in the country in the percentage of households with children under 18 that are maintained by a married couple. As a comparison, 79 percent of Utah children live with married parents; in the District of Columbia, 42 percent do.

Chetty also found that married parents influenced the lives of their children’s friends. Children’s expectations tend to mirror the adults they see around them, even if they live with a single parent.

One of the study’s most important findings was that marriage was a far more important factor than race in predicting economic mobility. Race effectively disappears as a factor when results are adjusted for marriage.

Marriage matters at both the individual and community level.

Economists Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins estimated that poverty would be reduced by 71 percent if the poor did just four things: finished high school, worked full time, got married and had no more than two children – and the number of children was the least important factor in that estimate.

Is Utah unique?

In many of these ways, yes. Utah is a Mormon-majority state. While many nonmembers deride the doctrine and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church promotes a number of the factors that Chetty describes as fundamental to economic mobility.

Is Utah perfect? Certainly not, but we have a lot of reasons to give thanks and a lot going for us.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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10 Comments

  • Not_So_Much August 17, 2017 at 7:22 am

    Thank you for this article and the information it contains.

  • Brian August 17, 2017 at 8:23 am

    Ah, the floodgates of bigotry are going to open on this one!

    I’ve worked in Scouts and LDS youth groups for 20 years and can say without a doubt (regardless of your feelings on doctrine or anything else about either organization) that as far as economic upward mobility and becoming a productive member of society every one of those youth’s lives have been improved, many significantly. I know one ward where several of the youth leaders are WAY more prosperous than the average family (the ward covers one of the more economically depressed parts of Washington County) and yet they’re totally down to earth and work constantly with the youth giving them great experiences and elevating them financially. Say what you will, but those youth activities are a major contributing factor to the results in this article for the state of Utah.

    • Utahguns August 17, 2017 at 11:19 am

      Ah, The Bigots…..they’re always lurking, but, I’ll ending up somehow forgiving them (although grudgingly), “for they know not what they do”.

      I’m with you on the scouting programs and youth groups.
      I’m not LDS, but, I have to give your statements about empowering youth, much credit.

      Whether it’s the Scouts, Youth Groups of the various accepted religions, YMCA / YWCA even sports; they all hold several things in common:
      They teach the Respect, for God, Families, Country, People and Law.

      One of the keys to success and abundance is practicing the above. You don’t have to be in a youth group to participate….

  • comments August 17, 2017 at 10:29 am

    A couple things I like about living around mormons are less drunkenness and less crime. Probably has a lot to do with the area being majority white as well. Let’s please not turn it into So. Cal. by letting illegals flood us and take over. We already have way way too many illegals in this town. How many shootings in the SLC area involve mexican gangbangers? They just flat-out bring nothing good, period.

  • comments August 17, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Now if these mormon-republicans would stop jacking up taxes every year worse than frickin’ “libruls” it would sure be nice.

    • Brian August 17, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      Time for another visit to California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and many other states run by “libruls” that make Utah look like a tax haven. I agree with the sentiments on taxes and their rise in Utah, just not relative to liberal-run states or liberal policies in general. The federal government is 10x bigger (relative to the states) than it was ever intended to be. Easily 9/10 things they do and 9/10 dollars they spend are on thing clearly not under their responsibility in the Constitution.

      • comments August 18, 2017 at 3:01 pm

        UT favors a regressive tax system in favor of the very wealthy at the detriment of middle and lower class. Taxing food is a good example of this. At the very least it’s taxed at a lower rate, but still very regressive. A lot of the hard right nutters favor a “flat tax”, and unless you’re very wealthy you would see absolutely no benefit to it. Just nuttery. Too much R-wing talk radio.

        • comments August 18, 2017 at 3:10 pm

          The biggest current advantages UT has are it’s relatively low population and lack of “multi-culturalism”. That’s changing rapidly tho, and not in a good way.

  • commonsense August 17, 2017 at 9:18 pm

    The honors accorded to Utah are well deserved. It has remarkable beauty and is well governed.
    Fiscal responsibility is such an important issue because it dictates our quality of life. While many states are borrowing against the future, Utah is solvent. Our infrastructure is new and functional.
    Our people are generous, kind and honest. I’m proud to live here.

  • utahdiablo August 17, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Yeah, already there: “He is an associate with SAC-a white supremacist gang Solider of Aryan Culture which is one of the home grown white supremacist groups here in Utah,” said Det. Van Emmerik.

    SAC isn’t the only gang in town. The Bloods, Crips, Surenos, Nortenos, and home grown gangs like QVO, VLT, WVC are also here.

    “Motorcycle gangs are starting to make a showing now. We haven’t seem them so largely in the past but you are starting to see the Mongols move in and they are starting to beef up their ranks,” says Det. Van Emmerik.

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