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How Utah's economic success doesn't always translate to lived experience

Posted at 3:29 PM, Jun 11, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — “Economy” is a sterile word for the basic stuff of life: food, shelter, a paycheck, a vacation, and even the way we understand the dignity of each person.

Utah has seen economic success outpacing other states in the 21st century, but success creates its own challenges, and Utah is a good case study of how large trends do not always translate to individual perceptions and experiences.

Economist Natalie Gochnour advises Utah’s top leaders in business and politics in her role as director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Center for Public Policy.

“When you turn your economy off and have to turn it back on, it really changes confidence,” Gochnour said of the age of COVID-19.

But, post-pandemic, Gochnour says the United States is doing well in ways most Americans are not feeling.

“We're doing better than Europe. We're doing better than China. We're doing better than Mexico. We're doing better than Canada. The U.S. economy is doing incredibly well coming out of the pandemic in pretty good form,” Gochnour said.

But Utah residents have lost some of their trademark confidence in the economy. Consumer sentiment in Utah trails the same measure nationally for the first time since Utah started tracking numbers.

Ginette Bott sees where Utahns struggle in her role as CEO of the Utah Food Bank. The Food Bank serves dozens of food pantries across the state. COVID caused increased demand, and the aftermath is not what Bott expected.

“I'm so grateful we were there to help these folks, but, unfortunately, the numbers have never come down. It hasn't changed back to anything that we thought was normal before COVID,” Bott said.

Both before and after the pandemic, the national nonprofit Feeding America shows that just over 12 percent of Utahns face food insecurity, a measure of a household's ability to afford food now and into the near future.

But the 12 percent facing hunger are different. To qualify for federal nutrition benefits under the SNAP program, a household has to be at 130 percent of the poverty rate or lower.

In 2017, 60 percent of food-insecure Utahns earned above that mark, earning too much to get benefits. In 2022, 75 percent of Utahns earned too much.

The seeming contradiction between higher wages and continuing hunger has everything to do with Utah’s big-picture economic success.

Gochnour describes the biggest problem for Utah families’ finances.

“Just unbelievably rapid appreciation in housing prices.”

A home costing just over $400,000 before the pandemic costs just under $800,000 now. Utah’s housing market is now the nation’s eighth most expensive.

Housing is expensive because Utah’s nation-leading low unemployment numbers have attracted new residents. Utah has historically been among the fastest-growing states, largely because of a high birth rate, but in recent years, migration from other states has surpassed new births as the largest source of population growth.

In other words, Utah has more new workers than new apartments and houses. It’s a reality spiraling downward, and it’s hard to stop.

“That's made it so hard to like recruit people, but also it takes away from your household income to do other things,” Gochnour said.

Housing isn’t a higher priority than food, but it is the more urgent bill. The local grocery store won’t take your shelter if you skip meals.

The same cruel math also bumps childcare costs down the list of priorities, and Bott got another post-pandemic surprise when she heard from libraries around Salt Lake County.

“There are 11 Libraries right here in the valley that Utah Food Bank takes dinner to and serves children every evening, because those kids are going to the library because parents can't afford daycare,” Bott said.

Political leaders know these problems. Gochnour described spending several hours answering questions from the Speaker of Utah’s House of Representatives in May.

Addressing them, they passed several laws during the 2024 legislative session.

They made it easier to operate an in-home childcare business and offered subsidies for the children of anyone employed full-time as a childcare worker.

They also granted counties and cities more authority to zone for affordable homes.

Utah’s legislature operates with a Republican super-majority, and the policies reflect a conservative philosophy of incremental and inexpensive initiatives, aimed at nudging the market to self-correct.

As the state transitions from relative homogeneity to diversity and deals with the pressures of an aging population, that approach to governing will meet a new test.