I spent a week in Utah when I was 15. I thought it was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been, and it is certainly the loveliest of the Western States (though I’ve ever been to Idaho). Being a teenager myself, I remember being impressed with Utah teens I’d met, all nice kids, slightly classer versions of the kids I hung out with back East.

Megan McArdle was also impressed with Utah, since it is the state with the greatest upward mobility in the Union.

The wide gulf between Utah and, say, North Carolina implies that we do, in fact, have a real problem on our hands. A child born in the bottom quintile of incomes in Charlotte has only a 4 percent chance of making it into the top quintile. A child in Salt Lake City, on the other hand, has more than a 10.8 percent chance — achingly close to the 11.7 percent found in Denmark and well on the way to the 20 percent chance you would expect in a perfectly just world.

The problem was that it is very hard to figure out what exactly Utah is doing right. The state is dead last in education spending per student and it’s public offices are run on shoe-string budgets.

Utah is a state founded by a religious cult. It is overwhelming Mormon, and Mormonism puts a large emphasis on clean living, family, and volunteering.

The volunteering starts in the church wards, where bishops keep a close eye on what’s going on in the congregation, and tap members as needed to help each other. If you’re out of work, they may reach out to small business people to find out who’s hiring. If your marriage is in trouble, they’ll find a couple who went through a hard time themselves to offer advice.

The Mormon Church handles a great deal of Utah’s social welfare, and it doesn’t really keep any records or even have that many official programs, but it does insist that help for the poor is temporary, a hand up, and that the poor are supposed to get on their feet and start returning the favor.

But the church is quite clear that the help is a temporary waypoint on the road to self-sufficiency, not a way of life. People are asked to work in exchange for the help they get, and, as the bishop said, “We make a list of what will sustain human life, not lifestyle.” I sampled various of the food items, and all were perfectly tasty, but nothing was what you would call fancy. It’s a utilitarian stopgap, not a substitute for an income, and not meant to be; the help comes with a healthy push to get yourself back on your feet as quickly as possible. The two phrases I heard over and over were “individual” and “self-reliant.”

“It’s a failure on the part of many,” he said, “if this is going on for six months or a year and their condition hasn’t changed.”

Since Utah is so culturally homogenous, rich and poor live similar lifestyles, attend the same schools, same churches, and mix in the same social circles. A poor family in some U.S. cities might not have seen a household headed by a man for three or four generations, a child growing up in such a neighborhood might not realize that there exist things like “marriage” and “careers” until well into adolescence. In Utah middle-class habits are the norm everywhere; even someone growing up without the benefits of middle-class family and work patterns has had models of them everywhere.

Finally, as McArdle points out, Utah is ethnically homogenous: 1% Black, 13% Hispanic, and everyone else is not only White, but Yankee, that is, descendants of the New England Puritans, a different cultural and ethnic group from the ornery Scotch-Irish who settled the South, or the “ethnics” – the Irish, Nordics, Slavs and Southern Europeans – who came later.

The American left often looks longingly at the Nordic welfare states of Europe, without noticing that Utah achieves pretty much the same thing and is about as close to the Republican Ideal as a state can get. Despite their opposed systems, what Utah and the Nordic states have in common is homogenous, insular, conformist, and high-trust cultures.

There is something to be said for ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, it is hard to imagine American music – Ragtime, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, and Rock – without Blacks, or the Golden Age of American cinema without Jews, but you can’t have both diversity and have the benefits of a high-trust society.

Our politics would be much more healthy if Left and Right realized we can’t make all America look like Utah or Denmark no matter what our laws were. America is what it is, ethnically, culturally, and religiously.




  1. Isolating statistics to equate Utah to Denmark is highly problematic. Especially a statistic like “upward mobility”.
    Recently there have been all sorts of headlines talking about the new property boom in Spain. “Biggest price rises in Europe!” “Prices up by 50%”. What they don’t mention is that’s just prices returning to their pre-crisis levels. In fact, taking inflation into account even with the “boom” they’re still slightly below pre-crisis levels.

    1. Yeah, its easy to manipulate statistics, here I am just taking the author’s word for it.

      1. Just add these fun ones to the equation:

      2. Part of a general trend. I live smack-dab in heroin country, stealing mom’s pills is usually step one.
        How does death by pill compare to all drug deaths?
        Perhaps high use of pills is related to percentages of pharmacists and nurses? They are notorious junkies.

      3. Update: Utah usually scores in the top 5 – 10 for all drug overdoses, and is also very high in suicides and depression. It may be that the prescription drug deaths are a function of the high suicide rates than high addiction rates.
        The rates of depression and suicide may be a function of Mormonism, genetics, or surprisingly, altitude.
        High suicide rates are in fact yet another attribute Utah has in common with Denmark and the Northern European welfare states.

      4. A one year spike probably isn’t statistically interesting. Utah is usually in the bottom 10-12 for murders per 100,000 people.

      5. As compared to Denmark or Sweden? 😛

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