If you’re someone who cares about our city’s distressed communities, I’ve got a reading assignment for you. It won’t take you long, though I suspect you may find yourself reading it more than once: Megan McArdle’s recent Bloomberg article “How Utah Keeps the American Dream Alive.”
When it comes to helping poor kids have a chance to become stable, Salt Lake City is the Spurs, and San Antonio is the Nets. (Not just San Antonio—many large cities are not doing well at creating mobility for struggling families and children.) The average child born in Salt Lake City is likely to earn 4 percent more than the national average income by the time she is 26 years old. Here in San Antonio, that child will earn 7 percent below the national average.
Poor children born in Salt Lake City have a better than 10 percent chances of making it to the top 20 percent of earners in adulthood. In San Antonio, that child’s chances are around 4 percent. (That last figure is my own math drawing on the nationwide data available in the Equality of Opportunity Project by Raj Chetty et al.)
What makes Salt Lake City good at moving people out of poverty and into opportunity? McArdle spent some time there trying to draw out lessons for the rest of the country. Her article features several interesting ideas to consider, but I’ll just list some key moments to whet your appetite:
“Big government” does not appear to have been key to Utah’s income mobility. From 1977 to 2005, when the kids in Chetty et al’s data were growing up, the Rockefeller Institute ranks it near the bottom in state “fiscal capacity.” The state has not invested a lot in fighting poverty, nor on schools; Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending. This should at least give pause to those who view educational programs as the natural path to economic mobility.
But “laissez faire” isn’t the answer either. Utah is a deep red state, but its conservatism is notably compassionate, thanks in part to the Mormon Church.
That’s the thing about the government here. It is not big, but it’s also not … bad. The state’s compassionate conservatism goes hand-in-hand with an unusually functional bureaucracy.
During the week I spent in Utah, I was astonished at how cheerful the civil servants were. They seemed to see no point in turf wars, as long as the work gets done by someone. Their poverty services programs use a “no wrong door” model, in which anyone seeking any sort of help is given a comprehensive assessment of all their needs. No one I talked to, even off the record, said they needed bigger budgets or more staff.
Noting how alien-like that sounds, McArdle adds,
…But let’s not despair. A cheerfully effective bureaucracy is not the sole force that makes the American Dream possible in Utah. In fact, my time inside that bureaucracy pointed me again and again toward a more significant factor.
People in Utah’s government casually talk about getting the community involved in their efforts, not as a rote genuflection to a political ideal, but as an actual expectation. “Government’s not going to solve all this, and that’s why you’re in the room,” Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox said to attendees of a community meeting about the Intergenerational Poverty Initiative….
McArdle also explores unique features of Utah that have made tackling inequality viable, including its relative cultural homogeneity, its pro-family and pro-marriage culture, and its generally compassionate ethics—all features of Mormonism that also happen to be good for tackling poverty.
As McArdle says, we’re not all about to become Mormons just so we can address inequality. But we can still take some pointers from Utah:
The Mormon Church, [BYU economist Joe Price] says, has created “scripts” for life, and you don’t need religious faith for those; you just need cultural agreement that they’re important. He said: “Imagine the American Medical Association said that if the mother is married when she’s pregnant, the child is likely to do better.” We have lots of secular authorities who could be encouraging marriage, and volunteering, and higher levels of community involvement of all kinds. Looking at the remarkable speed with which norms about gay marriage changed, thanks in part to an aggressive push on the topic from Hollywood icons, I have to believe that our norms about everyone else’s marriages could change too, if those same elites were courageous enough to recognize the evidence, and take a stand.
And as I saw myself, Mormonism also seems to have a script for a different kind of politics, one that might, just possibly, help us do some of the other things. Enough to make a difference.
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.
This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.