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Guest opinion: Utah tops social mobility rankings: What others can learn, what can be improved

By Gonzalo Schwarz and Justin Callais - | Jan 16, 2024

From small business to financial literacy and civic engagement, Utah is a national leader in more ways than one. Add social mobility to the list.

According to our recent report, which Gov. Spencer Cox highlighted, Utah’s environment for social mobility — the ability to improve one’s life — is the very best in America.. There is no better place to live the American dream than in Utah, and that is worth celebrating.

While there are many layers involved in achieving social mobility, there is little consensus on the barriers to and opportunities for mobility. In truth, mobility comes down to a multitude of factors that are determined throughout one’s life, starting from birth, continuing through early childhood and into secondary education (and beyond), and it is also influenced during one’s adult life.

Taking into account the entire lifecycle, we created the Social Mobility Index for U.S. States, based on four key pillars: entrepreneurship and economic growth; institutions and the rule of law; education and skills development; and social capital. And, pillar by pillar, Utah stood out.

Ranking first overall for social mobility, Utah also ranked in the top 10 within three of the four pillars. The state scored best (fourth) in entrepreneurship and economic growth, followed closely by education and skills development (fifth) and social capital (eighth). Even for institutions and the rule of law, Utah’s worst-performing pillar, the state scores reasonably well at 17th in the country — well ahead of neighbors like Arizona and Nevada.

Why? Because Utah policymakers have consistently enacted reforms that provide opportunities for their citizens to succeed, supporting a social structure — which transcends politics — that tends to fill in the gaps. Fittingly, in absolute measures of economic mobility according to Raj Chetty and his team’s research, Salt Lake City ranked No. 1 among metro areas in the United States.

We like to think about social mobility as the economics of human flourishing. In this way, Utah provides more pathways to flourishing for their citizens. This is crucial because human flourishing is high on the list for any American — achieving the American dream in a holistic way motivates us to move forward in the pursuit of happiness and deeper meaning. Fostering a healthy environment for social mobility is one of the most important preconditions.

To its credit, Utah is a dynamic state that provides businesses with opportunities to start and grow, in turn offering more chances for people to pursue their main source of income through a good-paying job. There are many options for work in a robust economy like Utah’s.

Moreover, the state’s favorable scores in our parental engagement and stability category — dubbed by some Utah’s “family miracle” — highlights the role of parents and families in building skills at a young age. This sort of skill development lies at the core of some of the most important research in the economics profession by Nobel laureate James Heckman. Melissa Kearney’s recent book, titled “The Two Parent Privilege,” also delves into Heckman’s research and makes a strong case for the two-parent households that are so common in Utah.

However, understanding social mobility is ultimately a holistic endeavor, and even the best state in the nation still has plenty of room for improvement. While Utah performs well in terms of entrepreneurship and economic growth, the state ranks closer to the middle of the pack in terms of one core area: regulation. Indeed, Utah is the home of quite burdensome occupational licensing rules and other labor market barriers that make it more difficult for people to work and find success.

The state also ranks below average on the Wharton Land Use regulation scale, which measures how restrictive it is to build housing and use one’s land. Housing is one of the critical issues in the state, due to increasing migration, and yet excessive building restrictions tend to make housing in Utah more expensive. Therein lies another opportunity for positive change, along with occupational licensing reform.

Reform is dependent on strong leadership. That’s why it is crucial for state leaders to acknowledge Utah’s room to grow, despite its promising position in the country. Policymakers need to recognize the importance of improving Utah’s environment for social mobility, and not rest on their laurels. Fortunately, they have a head start on the competition.

Gonzalo Schwarz serves as president and CEO of the Archbridge Institute, where Justin T. Callais, Ph.D., is a research fellow.


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