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. 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. 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.