‘How Utah keeps the American Dream alive’

Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle travels to Salt Lake City to investigate why the Beehive State remains a place where it’s possible for people to move upward from poverty, unlike in most of the nation today. Included in her lengthy piece is an interview with BYU economist David Sims, who says the state’s success derives in part from the way its communities tend to mix members of various income brackets together in social contexts such as schools or Mormon Church wards, exposing the rich and the poor to different social networks and producing over time a broad and infectious “middle classness.”

Writes McArdle:

Utah’s incredible levels of integration, of community solidarity and support, of trust in government and in each other, enable it to build something unique in America, something a bit like Sweden might be, if it were run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Where the best ideas of conservatives and liberals came together in one delicious package: business friendly, opportunity friendly, but also highly committed to caring for the needy and helping them get back on their feet. (And before you start muttering words like “theocracy,” let me point out that Salt Lake City also has a thriving LGBT community, and alone in the middle of the post-Obergefell culture wars, managed to bring that community together with religious leaders to hammer out a compromise that protected LGBT rights while also leaving some space for religious liberty.)

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.

Price gave me some hope. The Mormon Church, he 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.