How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive

Meagan McArdle, Bloomberg, March 28, 2017

Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City Utah

Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City Utah. (Credit Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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I went to Utah precisely because it’s weird. More specifically, because economic data suggest that modest Salt Lake City, population 192,672, does something that the rest of us seem to be struggling with: It helps people move upward from poverty. I went to Utah in search of the American Dream.

Columnists don’t talk as much as they used to about the American Dream. They’re more likely to talk about things like income mobility, income inequality, the Gini coefficient — sanitary, clinical terms. These are easier to quantify than a dream, but also less satisfying. We want money, yes, but we hunger even more deeply for something else: for possibility. It matters to Americans that someone born poor can retire rich. That possibility increasingly seems slimmer and slimmer in most of the nation, but in Utah, it’s still achievable.

If you were born to parents who were doing well, you are likely to be doing well yourself. If you were born to parents who were not doing well, then you are likely to repeat their fate. To take just one metric of many: In a society in which a college degree is almost required for entry into the upper middle class, 77 percent of people whose families are in the top quarter of the earnings distribution secure a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 24. For people in the lowest income bracket, that figure is 9 percent.

But things look a lot better in Salt Lake City, which economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez identified as having the highest rates of absolute upward mobility in the nation. So I went to Utah to discover its secrets and assess whether they could be exported.

Once I got there, I found that it’s hard to even get a complete picture of how Utah combats poverty, because so much of the work is done by the Mormon Church, which does not compile neat stacks of government figures for the perusal of eager reporters.

The church did, however, give me a tour of its flagship social service operation, known as Welfare Square. It’s vast and inspiring and utterly foreign to anyone familiar with social services elsewhere in the country. This starts to offer some clue as to why Utah seems to be so good at generating mobility — and why that might be hard to replicate without the Latter-Day Saints.

There’s bad news and good news.

Bad news: The wide gulf between Utah and, say, North Carolina implies that we do, in fact, have a real problem on our hands. A child born in the bottom quintile of incomes in Charlotte has only a 4 percent chance of making it into the top quintile. A child in Salt Lake City, on the other hand, has more than a 10.8 percent chance — achingly close to the 11.7 percent found in Denmark and well on the way to the 20 percent chance you would expect in a perfectly just world.

Good news: Because income mobility is not low everywhere, it looks like a problem with a solution. It’s not just a fact of life like earthquakes. If one place can give people a reasonable shot at moving up, then other places could presumably follow suit.

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There’s a more troubling theory: that at least some of Utah’s success lies in its lack of racial diversity. Which is itself no accident.

One astonishing feature of Utah is how little people talk about race. At that community meeting on the Intergenerational Poverty Initiative, all the usual people were there: civil servants and teachers, politicians, the folks who do charity work in the community, and the inevitable scattering of retirees who now have time to take an interest in politics. My notes on the meeting do not contain the word “race,” and as far as I can recall, no one mentioned it. No proposal was immediately decried as racist. Truly surreal to a Washingtonian and a recovering New Yorker. What’s happening here?

The state population is now about 13 percent Hispanic, but only 1 percent black. Part of the explanation is probably the Mormon Church’s century of institutional racism.

During the era of founder Joseph Smith, the church actually seems to have been relatively egalitarian for its time. But his successor, Brigham Young, who led the Latter-Day Saints to Utah, excluded black followers from the priesthood (which is generally open to every Mormon man), keeping them out of the center of ecclesiastical life. The doctrine did not change until 1978, and the church’s racist past still lingers.

Unsurprisingly, the Mormons did not attract many black converts during the century that the ban was in place. Given that Utah is primarily peopled by Mormons, its population skews white. (The church is now winning souls in Africa, but its home city remains remarkably white.)

This near-absence of racial diversity means that racism is largely left out of Utah’s conversations about economic inequality. That leads to some conversations around inequality that would be unbearably fraught elsewhere. When the poor people are, by and large, the same race as the richer ones, people find it easier to talk about them the way they might talk about, well, family members — as folks who may have made some mistakes and started with some disadvantages, but also as folks who could be self-sufficient after a little help from an uncle or a sister. It’s a very different conversation from “victim”/“oppressor” and “us”/“them:” a conversation that recognizes that poor people often make choices that keep them in poverty, but also that the constraints of poverty, including the social environment of poor neighborhoods, make it very difficult to make another choice.

It’s not clear that we can have those same sorts of conversations in the places that are still struggling more openly and frequently with the legacy of slavery, or the inevitable clashes that come from throwing a lot of different cultures together in a small space. The many benefits of diversity have been so frequently and thoroughly extolled that I need not rehearse the refrain here. But there has been a growing disquiet in recent years with diversity’s costs. About 10 years ago, public policy professor Robert Putnam began quietly pointing out that along with enhancing positive qualities like creativity, diversity also created conflict and reduced the level of social trust.

“In more diverse settings,” suggests Putnam, “Americans distrust not merely people who do not look like them, but even people who do.”

Utah’s willingness to help, and its ability to help, may arise from its homogeneity — a trait that won’t be exported to the diverse nation at large.

Utah is an aberration in many other ways. Look at alcohol and marriage.

The Mormon Church forbids drinking, and alcohol sales are far lower here than in other states. The incidence of problems associated with alcohol — like poverty, unemployment and crime — is also lower than in most other states.

On the other hand, the Mormon Church strongly encourages marriage, and the state is №1 in both married adults and in the percentage of children being raised by married parents.

Chetty et al suggest that having two married parents is a bedrock foundation of economic mobility — one that is rapidly eroding in modern America.

Economists Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins famously estimated that we could reduce poverty 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 calculation.

By encouraging members to marry, the Mormon Church is encouraging them to reduce their own likelihood of ending up poor. But it may also be creating spillover effects even for non-Mormons, because Chetty et al didn’t just find that married parents helped their own children to rise; they also influenced the lives of the children around them.

“Parents’ marital status does not matter purely through its effects at the individual level,” they write. “Children of married parents also have higher rates of upward mobility in communities with fewer single parents.”

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The value of married parents — even if they aren’t your parents — may come from peer effects. Neighborhoods model adulthood for kids. If you live in a neighborhood full of single mothers who had a hard time finishing school, that’s probably the future you’ll expect for yourself and your own kids. If you live in a neighborhood full of thriving two-parent families, that’s probably the future you’ll envision, even if your own father disappeared when you were 2. Marriage matters at the individual level, but it also matters at the community level, because the community can strongly shape individual behavior.

And this shaping is a two-way street, as George Orwell once pointed out about employment in Britain’s depressed industrial north. When most people are working, the community can help encourage those who are having trouble staying in work by lauding the working man and stigmatizing those who don’t. But when large percentages of the population are out of work, that norm collapses, because people are now being asked to stigmatize large numbers of their family and friends. The result is a vicious circle where work is not only harder to get, but harder to get people to do.

Marriage seems to be in just such a state of semi-collapse among large swathes of the population. The pattern of family formation that is becoming increasingly standard among the majority of the population that doesn’t have a college degree consists of weakly attached fathers, often supporting multiple children with multiple mothers, leaving their attention and resources divided among households.

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Utah’s unique religious history not only democratized the relationships between the affluent and the struggling; it also democratized marriage, at a time when elsewhere in the U.S., marriage seems to be morphing into an elite institution. {snip}

This does raise some questions about the viability of Utah’s “compassionate conservative” model outside the state. The vast welfare infrastructure from the Mormon Church naturally makes it easier to have smaller government. Perhaps that could be replicated by other communities. But the values of the Mormon Church may create a public that simply needs less help. That’s harder for another community to imitate. I’m not sure this key ingredient is available in a secular version; I think religion might only come in religion flavor.

How the heck is some state government supposed to get people to marry, and stay married?

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No place is perfect. But with mobility seemingly stalled elsewhere, and our politics quickly becoming as bitter as a double Campari with no ice, I really, really wanted to find pieces of Utah’s model that could somehow be exported.

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President George W. Bush talked a lot about compassionate conservatism 15 years ago, but Utah has made it a reality. Utahans seem strongly committed to charitable works, by government, alongside government or outside government. Whatever tools used are infused with an ethic of self-reliance that helps prevent dependency. And yet, when there’s a conflict between that ethic and mercy, Utah institutions err on the side of mercy.

America could use a politics more like that. And the values that make it work are not unique to Mormonism; nothing that they say is strikingly different from anything the religious right professes. Nor does Christianity have a monopoly on helping others and building strong communities; those are central tenets of a lot of religions, and are secular priorities.

We are not going to be a majority Mormon nation; we are not going to have Utah’s cultural homogeneity. But we could have more politicians like Lieutenant Governor Cox, and even more honest and sympathetic conversations about poverty. We could offer more, and better, help to people who need it.

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With inspiration from Utah, perhaps the U.S. could inch toward Utah-level mobility — and toward the American Dream.

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