Utah Keeping the The American Dream Alive

There was a gushing story about Utah and particularly the Mormon influence there in today’s Bloomberg. The issue was how Utah deals with poverty. Particularly how Utah is near Denmark in economic mobility figures. It’s not the first time Utah has been singled out. A couple of years ago Newsweek did a similar story. I think the question is how much we should trust the gushing. Certainly I think we’re doing some things right here. However I know we have a tendency to notice the things we do right and ignore some of the problems. There is a bit more complexity here I think.

Reading the Bloomberg story I found only a few criticisms and then one major worry. I’m curious as to all of your takes.

One issue I noticed brought up was the racism under the priesthood ban. The author, Megan McArdle, suggests led to a fairly white demographics. She does note that the state is 13% hispanic but only 1% black. This is important because many economists and sociologists suggest that equality is simply easier with homogeneity. Thus they see part of the nordic’s countries success as tied to their lack of racial diversity. When Utah with apparent lack of diversity doesn’t focus on race much and is able to coordinate help, how much of it could translate to other more diverse locations?

While I recognize the issue, I think that tends to neglect the large hispanic population. To be fair, many are Mormon and despite some racists in the Church, by and large I think for most people the Mormonism is the stronger identity than race. That is I bet even people who harbor racist feelings might find the black Bishop from the ward that meets in my building more of their identity than the white atheist who drinks and is covered with tattoos.[1] So it’s possible that Mormon hispanics are considered in-group while Catholic hispanics aren’t. But I’m not sure we see that happening. That suggests that while we’re far from being as racially egalitarian as we should be, that diversity perhaps isn’t the key issue for mobility here.

The other thing to consider is that mobility in say Denmark isn’t quite as big as often portrayed. Much of it is an artifact of wealth redistribution. Statistics show that poor Danish children don’t leap into the middle class and children of non-college Danes are about as unlikely to go to college as similar Americans. What is interesting then is that despite having schools that frankly could be drastically improved and a relatively weak safety net, Utah still is able to score similar mobility rankings.

McCardle suggests the issue is largely intact families, which Mormons tend to do better than many other groups. Not only do Mormons marry, stay married, and have lots of kids, but our neighborhoods tend to be filled with people like that. In turn that has a peer effect even on the children who may not have that in their own families.

Stepping a little beyond the focus on the article, I think there’s a few places we’re still struggling as well. Utah the past few years has gained a lot of praise for our handling of the homeless. Yet this last six months things at least appear to have broken down badly. There’s been several violent incidents around the homeless shelter near Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City. Businesses around the area have been complaining mightily about the problems that in turn affect them. Salt Lake City is attempting to distribute the homeless more, but in doing so is supplying fewer beds. Further complicating matters most neighborhoods don’t want shelters in their area fearing increased crime – especially violent crime.

Provo which had quite a few successes has recently also faced violence. There was a decapitation down at a homeless camp near the railway tracks. The past two months the camp has moved to the mountainside with an associated increase in violence around the popular jogging areas. Several women have been attacked and raped. The camp has become quite large and the city has had trouble dealing with it due to some actions by the land owner.[2] The cause for the increased size of the camp, according to some stories, is the lack of affordable housing in the Provo/Orem area. The other cause is that as Salt Lake City police have raided the homeless there for drug and violence charges people are moving south to this camp on the mountainside.

Problems like these suggest that Utah isn’t quite doing as well as we sometime think. Salt Lake City seems to be attempting to consciously push the homeless into other neighborhoods.

1. Note I’m not saying we should treat the white atheist differently. Far from it, we should be reaching out to them with charity and love. My point is that in the human drive towards unconsciously labeling people as in-group or out-group that the black Bishop is probably more in-group even to people on the racist end of Mormon populations. Maybe I’m wrong in that but I suspect I’m not.

2. The details aren’t exactly clear. The police reported that they went to remove the homeless shelter but were denied access by the landowner, a developer who has often clashed with the Provo City Council and wants to develop the area. While it’s much discussed on Facebook it’s hard to know what to trust in reports there. Minutes from the January council meeting discuss it a bit.

4 comments for “Utah Keeping the The American Dream Alive

  1. A common measure of economic mobility is movement between quintiles., as used in the Bloomberg piece. However, this is much easier when there is less variability. Utah doesn’t have the same floor, or the same ceiling, as many other states. In other words, the 1% in Utah cannot compare to the 1% in many other states. So, this may be less about having “all things common among them” than it is about there being less economic variation, or as you say, Clark’ “equality is simply easier with homogeneity”. I would submit that this is only the appearance of equality, however.

    I had a sociology professor remark once, when discussing social class, that there weren’t any upper-upper class people in Utah. It’s about more than money, but includes influence, social connections, and “old money”. Utah simply hadn’t been around long enough for the money to be that old. Now, that was a whacky professor who wasn’t backing things up with actual numbers, just trying to make a general point about social class to students in an intro. class. Still, there’s something there.

  2. I’m not sure I buy that claim of ‘established money’ being the only upper-upper-class. Consider billionaires like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or any number of Silicon Valley entrepreneur. They’re recent money. Maybe they are in a place like Gatsby, but I think they can often have outsized influence that goes well beyond established money in say Long Island.

    By that measure of course there are wealthy here. The Huntsmans being but one example.

    Within mobility I think the 1% and higher are largely irrelevant. What we really want to know is whether someone in the bottom quintile can make it to the 1st or 2cd quintiles. As I mentioned with Denmark, one way to do this is just give money. But that confuses wealth somewhat with true economic mobility. There Denmark probably doesn’t do as well as Utah I suspect despite appearances.

    To make that move though requires first off being able to develop the necessary skills. That’s not just education as usually used but important social skills that often the poor have a hard time developing like impulse control and contentiousness. That’s where I suspect family stability and the quality of especially discipline within families. There’s a fair bit of study suggesting that if punishment seems random it tends to lead to impulse control simply because it’s hard to judge causation by the brain. But also a lot of those skills just are hard to teach if parents can’t give enough time to the kids for whatever reason. Chaotic environments can also undermine even what good parents try to do.

    I think that here Utah may for a variety of reasons do better than most states. We have less substance abuse, as mentioned more stable homes, and most importantly as the article mentions enough good stable families that form peers for those not in those environments. The peer effect is very large in setting behavior, habits and expectations.

  3. Given an auditorium of 1,000 people in Draper booed a homeless man on stage tonight who asked for them to show compassion, yeah, I would say it takes the shine off of our “success story” a bit.

  4. Here’s the story for what Susan refers to. Not the valley’s finest moment by any means. It’s one thing to object to certain location. To demand no location and no help seems deeply wrong. On the other hand I can understand the fear given the situation with drugs and violence around Pioneer Park in SLC. And simply springing this on residents with no process of discussion was almost certain to have this sort of effect. If you want support you need to build the support and get feedback. Surprising people will always lead to anger and overreaction. However anyone who says the solution is to give the homeless bus tickets to other cities is simply shirking their moral duty.

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