Guest opinion: Family should be priority for interim

The 2023 Utah legislative session closes this week. When it concludes, lawmakers will have enacted hundreds of new laws and policy reforms designed to address issues such as economic growth, education, healthcare and infrastructure. It often seems that there is no civic institution as important and impactful in society as government, guided by its elected institutional leaders.

But there is another civic institution guided clearly by leaders that is as important and impactful, if not more, to the well-being of society: families led by parents.

Research has long recognized the impact that parents and family structure have on areas such as education. Families have been found to be a more important driver of academic achievement than the school itself.

Something similar can be said for the family and the economy, despite how policy debates often separately categorize economic and family policy issues and ignore the connections between the two. For example, research produced by Sutherland Institute’s newly announced visiting scholar W. Brad Wilcox notes that “strong and stable families are linked to higher levels of economic growth in nations across the globe. … What happens in the family may not affect only the welfare of private families but also the wealth of nations.” This can be applied to the wealth of states as well.

The family is also critical to individual economic well-being. As Wilcox’s research indicates, black, Hispanic and white millennials in America who followed the steps of the “success sequence” (graduating from high school, working full time, and marrying before having children) during their teens, 20s and early 30s had less than a 5% chance of being poor by their mid-30s.

In other words, family policy is economic policy, and vice versa. When parents make an education decision about where to live so their kids can attend a good school or about the next job they take in their quest to better support their family, they are making economic (housing and labor) decisions as well.

Too often in policy debates – including many in the current legislative session – we silo off family, economic and education policy from one another, when for most Utahns they are so interrelated that in some instances they are simply indistinguishable. That means that we may be missing important policy implications or straightforward solutions because we misunderstand the issue in one facet or another.

As we head into another interim between legislative sessions, policymakers and those working in the policy space should strive to better recognize and reflect in dialogue the connections between the economy, education and the family. Further, policy should treat parents as the institutional leaders that they are – offering them the same space to act and level of respect in their institutional realm that education leaders demand in schools, government leaders demand in government, and business leaders demand in their businesses. If we do, we just might find unexpected progress not only in matters of family, but in education, government and the economy as well.

Derek Monson is vice president of policy for Sutherland Institute, a principle-based public policy thinktank in Salt Lake City.