Religion & Liberty Online

What Christians can learn from Utah’s economic success

How do we move closer to ending poverty and expanding opportunity in America? Does a single solution or road map even exist?

In a widely cited study, the Brookings Institute’s Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins famously argued that at least one predictable path is evident. “The poverty rate among families with children could be lowered by 71 percent if the poor completed high school, worked full-time, married, and had no more than two children,” they argue.

Skeptics and critics abound, but as it turns out, there’s already state that has largely (and unknowingly) put much of that basic thesis to the test, which boasts high graduation and workforce participation rates alongside stable and long-lasting marriages and families.

In a fascinating bit of analysis, Megan McArdle observes that Utah has somehow managed to cultivate a peculiar subculture that bucks a range of national trends, resulting in a unique blend of lean government, low crime, high voluntary charity, and widespread economic mobility.

“It matters to Americans that someone born poor can retire rich,” writes McArdle. “That possibility increasingly seems slimmer and slimmer in most of the nation, but in Utah, it’s still achievable.” According to economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez, the state has “the highest rates of absolute upward mobility in the nation,” a feat that’s tricky to tie to either big government solutions (the state has the lowest spending per pupil in the nation) or hyper-laissez-faire economics (the state offers a significant safety net, including a public/private “war on homelessness”).

Lean and functional government surely helps, as does a red-state policy environment that’s mostly positive when it comes to embracing economic freedom and local governance. Yet the question is what comes before such fruits and political priorities. What kinds of cultural conditions exist that foster attitudes so favorable to freedom?

McArdle looks eagerly for the answers, and in each area she examines, she continues to find return to a feature that you may already expect: Mormonism.

Those dots aren’t all that difficult to connect, of course, particularly when it comes to areas like basic social cohesion or marriage and family. The Mormon Church has strict rules about alcohol, for example, leading not only to far fewer alcohol sales, but far fewer incidences of the types of crimes and problems that typically stem from its abuse. The Mormon Church also vigorously promotes marriage and child-rearing, and as a result, “the state leads the nation for marriage and for children with married parents.” But the influence of Mormonism doesn’t just exist at the family or local-church level.

When it comes to private charity and social activism more broadly, the Mormon Church is also highly active and effective, a feature embodied by its “flagship” Welfare Square facility, an operation that provides social services via food processing and manufacturing, food distribution, employment services, various personal and professional services, and a range of other outlets and avenues. Their approach to charity is specific and distinct. “The church is quite clear that the help is a temporary waypoint on the road to self-sufficiency, not a way of life,” McArdle writes. “People are asked to work in exchange for the help they get, and, as the bishop [and division director for the Welfare Department of the Church] said, “We make a list of what will sustain human life, not lifestyle.”

This underlying “philosophy of help” also serves as a reinforcement to Utah’s small and effective state government. McArdle observes that the state’s “compassionate conservatism goes hand-in-hand with an unusually functional bureaucracy,” and that “the vast welfare infrastructure from the Mormon Church naturally makes it easier to have smaller government.” The view that material generosity is just one step on a longer path to sustainable work and self-sufficiency is also mirrored in the rhetoric of state and city officials. “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,” McArdle writes. As Utah’s own Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox recently said to a gathering of community leaders, “Government’s not going to solve all this, and that’s why you’re in the room.”

So what are the takeaways for the rest of the nation?

McArdle isn’t overly simplistic or idealistic in locating some kind of grand solution, and she isn’t shy about highlighting Mormonism’s complicated history and problematic distinguishers (particularly its history of racial discrimination). Indeed, for many, Utah’s excessive homogeneity can be overbearing and brings with it its own set of blind spots. As McArdle herself half-jokingly writes, “Salt Lake City is a very weird place.” Where it does shine, it does so largely due to that same homogeneity, paired with a distinct institutional infrastructure that’d be impossible to replicate via top-down machination. “Utah’s willingness to help, and its ability to help, may arise from its homogeneity ,” she says, “a trait that won’t be exported to the diverse nation at large.”

Even still, Utah’s social and economic success can serve to remind us of a simpler reality when it comes to our debates over policies and solutions: economic freedom and “lean and functional government” are far easier to achieve when the cultural climate assumes a distinct set of values and virtues that are amenable to liberty. If anything, Utah is a glaring reminder that if we hope to achieve greater levels of political, religious, and economic freedom, the culture-level battles hold significant sway. Joe Price, an economist at Brigham Young who is quoted in the piece, says that Utah succeeds because it creates “scripts for life” at all levels of society, and that secular culture would due well to follow suit. “We have lots of secular authorities who could be encouraging marriage, and volunteering, and higher levels of community involvement of all kinds,” Price says.

Further, as a Christian who subscribes to theological beliefs and commitments that are vastly different from those of the Mormon Church, it reminds me of the influence that faithful, orthodox Christianity can and should (and in many ways does) wield over the conscience and contour of the nation at large. Given the power of the truth it holds, what greater “common goods” can and should we achieve? In many ways, the nature of Christianity lends itself to the social diversity of America in a way that Mormonism simply doesn’t.

McArdle herself can’t seem to escape the notion that religion might just be the key ingredient, stretching beyond mere moralism. “I’m not sure this key ingredient is available in a secular version,” she says. “I think religion might only come in religion flavor.”

I, for one, will happily suggest and contest as to what the right “religious flavor” should distinctly be, even as I grant that we can and should (also) work toward a “moral commonality through particularly,” partnering with those who may disagree with us on religion or theology but share certain “scripts for life.” But just as we Christians have many lessons to learn from Utah, we also need not reduce our witness to a mere matter of orchestrating those “scripts for life.”

As we ourselves move forward, bringing a distinctly Christ-centered witness to our families, churches, communities, businesses, and politics, we can rest in the power and permanence of seeds that, I believe, go deeper. We have the opportunity to give not just a philosophy of life, but the truth of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit, bringing salt and light that transforms systems and societies, but goes well before and beyond the social and economic order.

Photo: Public Domain

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.