Policies that encourage stable families and increased educational and vocational training are vital to sustaining the state’s strong social and economic performance.
Policymakers as well as the rising generation will need to address the reality that Utahns are living longer and having fewer children — a demographic trend that could strain social safety nets, even in a state that boasts the nation’s youngest population. However, there are other concerning census trends related to family structure and education that merit immediate attention from community leaders.
The recently released U.S. Census Bureau 2015 American Community Survey reveals early signs of troubling demographic shifts. Relative to national family demographic changes, between 2010 and 2015, Utah's portion of the population under 5 years of age declined at a rate four times faster than the national average.
The percent of divorced individuals in Utah rose from 8.8% to 9.4% as it increased only 0.1% nationally. Of equal concern, the percent of births to unwed mothers increased significantly in the Beehive State while dropping nationally. The poverty rate for two-parent families with children under the age of 5 also increased in Utah while decreasing overall.
There were additional disappointments in education.
Not surprisingly, Utah’s student enrollment for grades 1-8 grew dramatically between 2010 and 2015 compared to the national average. During the same period of time, however, the enrollment in Utah’s college and graduate programs declined compared to the national average. Undoubtedly some of this is associated with the policy change from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regarding age requirements for missionary service which transitioned during this period.
However, as Utah-student enrolment rose in K-12, funding priorities within the state and local governments relative to education were in stark contrast to the demographics. Higher education funding received increased priority during this period as K-12 was under increased strain as enrollment rapidly expanded.
Utah has long depended on solid families to supplement less-than-stellar K-12 funding. Nevertheless, the Census data shows that this strength can easily erode without constant vigilance.
Utah is not likely to be displaced as the pre-eminent state when it comes to fostering strong families, yet as policy-makers digest the well-deserved recognition that Utah attracts for its recent economic progress, they must not forget that much of this success is based on its unique demographics related to family and education.
As Utah enters a knowledge-based economy, it will require policies that reflect dynamic demographic trends and support stable families as well as continued educational attainment.
Utah must recognize that stable families, education, and the state’s overall economy are inextricably connected. When one is wounded, all three bleed.