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In our opinion: Most Utahns are better off than a year ago. The nation should take note

The state flag flies over the Capitol in Salt Lake City before the start of a special session of the Legislature on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

That many Utahns’ personal lives keep improving even as perceptions of the country decline might be a mystery to outsiders looking into the state, but to those living here, it makes perfect sense.

A new poll commissioned by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics finds a majority of Utahns (56%) believe their personal lives are better off than they were four years ago. That, despite an impeachment trial, a global pandemic, working and learning from home, economic depression, social unrest, racial inequality and the swirling storm of an upcoming presidential election — and that’s just the past year.

Perhaps it’s those same phenomena that lead only 42% of Utahns to say the country is better off today than it was four years ago.

Somewhere between the halls of the U.S. Capitol and the top of the Rockies is a disconnect that exposes certain political myths. Examine the election battle cry of 2020, for instance: “This is an election for the heart and soul of America,” candidates proclaim. But Utah shows that, despite a hyperpartisan nation that’s more connected through digital media than ever, the old adage, “all politics is local” rings true.

More people, it appears, derive satisfaction not from the state of the nation’s affairs but from what goes on in their daily lives, their neighborhoods and their families. That’s where the heart and soul of America lies.

On the economic front, Utah hasn’t escaped the pandemic’s destruction, but a diversified workforce spared the Beehive State from the worst. While the service industry has been particularly hard hit, the state’s aggregated unemployment numbers are the lowest in the country — 4.5% compared to the national average of 8.4%.

Years of fiscal responsibility among the state’s lawmakers and executive branch led to a budget surplus and a sizable rainy day fund that positioned the state as one of the best to weather an economic downturn.

The strength of Utah’s civil society shouldn’t be downplayed, either. The state’s reputation for being the most willing in the country to volunteer was on display during the early days of the coronavirus crisis. When ProjectProtect announced its initiative to sew 5 million masks in five weeks, thousands of Utahns signed up. Some 10,000 sewing kits were spoken for within 62 hours of the website launch.

Utah’s polling data should send a message to national leaders: Individuals have the power to improve their lives for the better, even in the worst of environments. Government should serve and facilitate that pursuit, but it should not assume it can be the means by which Americans derive their happiness.