Scanning the indicators for economically successful states, any objective observer would need to pause on Utah.
As Utah Foundation recently outlined in part of the 2018 Economic Report to the Governor, the state stacks up very favorably in national and regional comparisons. Looking at 2013 through 2016, the most recent three-year period with complete data, Utah Foundation found that our state ranked second in the nation for GDP growth, with an eye-opening annual growth rate of 3.9 percent. To put that in perspective, the U.S. average was 2.3 percent, and the Mountain States regional average was 2.6 percent. Meanwhile, Utah’s median household income was $65,977 in 2016, 12th highest in the nation.
The employment growth rate was 2.6 percent from 2013 through 2016, compared to 1.8 percent nationally. Utah’s growth was second in the Mountain States region only to Arizona’s 2.9 percent growth. For 2016, the state’s unemployment rate averaged 3.4 percent, eighth lowest in the nation and significantly lower than the national unemployment rate (4.9 percent).
A strong economic profile encourages population growth, and Utah was the fastest-growing state in 2016, with an increase in residents of 1.8 percent. From 2013 through 2016, Utah ranked fourth for population growth, with an increase of 1.7 percent, significantly faster than the U.S. average (0.7 percent).
Washington County did more than its share to promote population growth in the state, adding nearly 20,000 residents from 2013 to 2017 – a 13% increase. Neighboring Iron County has been growing rapidly as well.
Utah’s overall growth comes in good part from a birth rate that tops the nation. Utah also continues to have the largest household size (3.2 persons per household, with only one other state averaging over 3.0).
So what are we doing right? It’s hard to know where to start; tax policy and culture are areas ready for deep exploration. But a few other observations arise immediately.
To begin with, Utah not only has a high birth rate, our births tend to occur in a stable context. We have the lowest percentage of births to unwed mothers in the nation and a relatively low rate of teen pregnancy. Two-parent households tend to reduce poverty rates by providing two potential income earners, if needed. And raising children in two-parent families has been shown to dramatically improve their upward mobility later in life – thereby increasing their participation in the workforce and ensuring their contributions to the overall economy. It means lower poverty rates and thereby lower costs to government. To take one indicator: Utah ranked 49th in federal food stamp (SNAP) recipient rate in 2016.
Speaking of the costs of government, one big line-item bedeviling many states appears to be less of a burden in Utah: public employee pension costs. According to a recent Tax Foundation study, Utah has the nation’s 12th best-funded pension plans – allowing government to spend less on pension liabilities and more on the services, infrastructure and amenities that lay the groundwork for a more vibrant economy.
Of course, many of our amenities come with the place. Utah’s outdoor offerings are hard to beat, and according to U.S. Forest Service data, growth in participation in outdoor activities in the Rocky Mountain region has been significantly outpacing the rest of the country.
With a young, upwardly mobile and active population, Utah is in full stride as a place to live, work and play.
Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Contact him at [email protected]