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Opinion: Utahns score well on the ‘art of association,’ except in this category

That Utah should perform so poorly on this metric while thriving on other measures of association is a paradox that invites further exploration

Utahns consistently score high nationally in charitable giving per capita
Utahns consistently score high nationally in charitable giving per capita, voluntarism and neighborhood participation. But the state scores low when it comes to nonprofessional associations.
Catherine Lane

Going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s monumental study of the American character in the 1830s, the U.S. has been known for what the Frenchman called our “art” of association. He noted not only “commercial and industrial associations in which all take part,” but also that Americans participate in groups that are “religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small.”

But those studying the American art of association find that it has been disintegrating since the 1960s. This disintegration only eats away at our social fabric. It can also diminish our mental and physical health and place new demands on government. Recent developments, such as the increasing time spent on personal technology devices and the lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic, may only be encouraging the disintegration.

Fortunately, Utah appears to be doing comparatively well. In the latest report in the Utah Foundation’s Social Capital Series — “The Art of Association: Community Life in Utah” — we looked at six measures of participation in community life. On four of them, Utah is either first or second in the nation.

Utah’s charitable giving has consistently outpaced the U.S. at large. In 2019, 66% of Utahns made donations, compared to only 50% of Americans overall. Utah ranked second to South Dakota.

When it comes to volunteerism, Utah is clearly No. 1 in the nation. Utah consistently outperforms the nation at large — and by a wide margin.

Utah has by far the nation’s highest level of neighborhood participation. No other state in the nation comes close.

The most recent data put Utah strongly in first place nationally for weekly religious service attendance. This is important, because roughly half of all U.S. social capital comes from religious groups in one form or another.

However, there is growing distrust of institutions in America, including organized religion. Throughout the United States, religious service attendance has been in long-term decline. That trend has carried over into Utah.

The vast majority of Utahns are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or other religious groups. But only about half of Utahns attend services weekly. The well-established benefits associated with religiosity — such as better physical and mental health, social connections, economic success and higher life satisfaction — require actual participation, rather than simply belief or card-carrying membership.

Other findings of our report are worth a close look. While Utah is at the top on four of the six metrics we examined, the Beehive State is dead last in the nation when it comes to the number of nonprofessional organizations per capita.

America has a particularly robust network of these kinds of voluntary associations, dating back to the associations that buttressed the War of Independence. These organizations include service groups; fraternities, sororities or and alumni groups; homeowner and tenant groups; military and veteran organizations; and citizen participation groups. When meeting regularly and in manageable sizes, these organizations allow people a chance to build their social networks.

That Utah should perform so poorly on this metric while thriving on other measures of association is a paradox that invites further exploration. And when it comes to professional organizations, Utah also performs below average, suggesting a similar dynamic that softens participation in these groups.

One possibility is that, when it comes to both professional and nonprofessional organizations, Utah’s low metrics may be the flip side of its strong religious participation, along with volunteerism and neighborhood participation. In other words, Utahns may be satisfying their associational needs in ways that do not require a high number of professional and nonprofessional organizations.

Regardless, the upshot is that participation in community life overall is formidable in Utah. It is difficult to estimate the positive impacts on the social fabric, the public sector and even the economy. The art of association in Utah clearly is an asset worth exploring — and protecting.

Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at peter@utahfoundation.org. Find the Utah Social Capital Series, including “The Art of Association,” at utahfoundation.org.