Utah has an important lesson for progressives on upward mobility

The state is keeping the American Dream alive through conservative means

Moving up.
(Image credit: Ikon Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Is the American Dream dead? Has that shining promise that hard work will bring prosperity and a better life been snuffed out?

It's tempting to think this might be the case. It seems that America is sliding towards a division between a coastal plutocracy and everyone else, and that for those who are born in America's ever-growing and ever-worsening underclass, everything is destined to keep them stuck treading water, if not forcing their heads down.

But, according to a new, well-reported article from Bloomberg's Megan McArdle, there is one place where the American Dream is alive and well: Utah. In Salt Lake City, the likelihood of moving from the poorest quintile to the richest is 10.8 percent, an upward mobility rate much higher than the 4 percent found in other cities, like Charlotte, North Carolina.

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This kind of upward mobility is the stuff progressives' dreams are made of. But it's how Utah has accomplished this that progressives might find interesting, if not infuriating.

What is Utah's secret? Mormons.

That's the short answer, at least. In reality, Utah is different in a lot of ways, as McArdle explains. First, its government is very effective. But it is also cheap. Utah is one of the reddest states in the country, but its conservatism is of the compassionate kind. The state recently led a successful "war on homelessness" and is currently engaged in a massive effort to fight intergenerational poverty. "During the week I spent in Utah," McArdle writes, "I was astonished at how cheerful the civil servants were." This probably raises the eyebrows of anyone who is familiar with how government works. Then, she drops the bombshell: "No one I talked to, even off the record, said they needed bigger budgets or more staff."

But it doesn't stop with Utah's government. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the de facto state church of Utah, and it shoulders many of the responsibilities that we traditionally associate with the welfare state, and seems to do a better job at it. The LDS Church's social services agency, called Welfare Square, seems well-funded and efficient. Mormons volunteer with Welfare Square, and informal church networks help people find jobs or work through marriage difficulties. What's more, while Welfare Square is generous when it comes to giving people the necessities of life, McArdle writes that "the church is quite clear that the help is a temporary waypoint on the road to self-sufficiency, not a way of life. People are asked to work in exchange for the help they get. [...] The two phrases I heard over and over were 'individual' and 'self-reliant.'" Someone who relies too much on handouts will get "a verbal kick in the pants." As McArdle notes, in the U.S., government social services are no longer allowed to do that because of the potential for racial discrimination.

Finally, the state is steeped in a general bourgeois ethos. People get married young and stay married. Churches provide the sort of informal social networks that help people build what economists refer to as human and social capital, which helps them lead healthier lives, find and keep jobs, and so forth.

In the end, Utah represents a unique experiment, "something a bit like [what] Sweden might be, if it were run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," McArdle says. It is low-tax, small-government, and business-friendly, but also strongly committed to caring for the under-privileged.

In other words, Utah is everything conservatives would expect it to be.

Yes, there are a few things that might make Utah's success a little bit cringe-worthy for conservatives: Some might not like the idea that, along with an emphasis on self-reliance, social policy also needs a bleeding heart. More profoundly, conservative wonks like me enjoy touting policy ideas like child tax credits and wage subsidies, but Utah suggests that what America more fundamentally needs is a religious revival, and nobody knows how to engineer that.

Then there's the fact that the state is one of the least racially diverse in the country. The LDS Church banned blacks from the priesthood until 1978, and though now the church is open, "the church's racist past still lingers," McArdle writes. No doubt conversations around poverty that happen in Utah would be much more difficult in more diverse settings, especially those still struggling with the legacy of slavery. Certainly, very few would be comfortable with the idea that less diversity might mean higher social trust, as the sociologist Robert Putnam has famously argued, which in turn might be the only way to get things like efficient government and a mobile society.

But it's progressives — not conservatives — who ought to make note of what is happening in Utah thanks to a religiously-soaked culture, a strong marriage and bourgeois ethos, and the use of private initiative and civil society to help put the underprivileged on their feet. Progressives say they want the kind of social welfare, equal opportunity, and high social mobility found in this state, but are they willing to accept that those goals might best be accomplished through conservative means?

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