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White, Republican, Latter-day Saint? Helping families means moving past Utah stereotypes

The Straleys remove ornaments from their tree at their home in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2020.
The Straleys remove ornaments from their tree at their home in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2020. They are among the 40,000 multigenerational households in Utah.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Utah is often criticized for its lack of diversity. When people think of the “typical Utah family,” they probably picture a white, Republican Latter-day Saint household made up of a husband, wife and kids. Lots of kids.

But the truth is much more nuanced. Just as it’s dangerous to have a single story about child care or who makes a better leader, it’s important to see beyond the stereotypes of Utah families. If our perceptions and policies are tailored to one version of that family — even if it’s the majority — we are essentially refusing to see the full range of our community.

In the most recent General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, two general authorities stressed that more than half of the adults in the church are now single, whether divorced, widowed or never married. For many this single status has made them feel invisible and these religious leaders are urging they be embraced as full participants and not as halves in need of a pair.

For families in Utah, the census data reveals that approximately 18% of children live in single-parent households. This means that about 167,000 infants, toddlers, kids, preteens and teens under 18 do not fit the stereotype.

Acknowledging this matters when we make policies that affect those children. For example, in 2020 a bill expanding school breakfast was initially rejected by Utah lawmakers, with one senator sharing that his mother and now his wife made breakfasts for the family, so why couldn’t all moms do the same? When we universalize our particular situation, we may deny the lived experiences of everyone else.

What about the other aspects of a “typical” Utah family? Did you know that roughly 40,000 Utah households are multigenerational? In those houses maybe grandpa makes breakfast. And the average number of children is 2.3 (so much for lots of kids). I was surprised to learn that in 15% of households a language other than English was spoken and that 6.5% of Utahns under 65 have a disability. These numbers remind me that I have easy access to so many things that may be a challenge for others, whether it’s all the voter information in English only or the ease with which I navigate spaces that cannot accommodate a wheelchair.

When it comes to politics, Utah is known as a red state. And yet, the most recent voter registration statistics show a more complicated picture. Yes, Republicans dominate, but just barely at 51%. Democrats are 15%, but more than a third of us don’t fit into either category. So you can’t always assume who voted for whom.

But surely we can assume everyone attends the same church on Sunday, right? Well, not really. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up 61% of the population. So if you line up five people, three are Latter-day Saints, one another Christian faith and the other is unaffiliated (which studies show to be the fastest growing group among millennials).

So while the world and the rest of the nation may choose to see us as monochromatic, it’s vital that we do not follow suit. Just as Utah’s topography is made up of snowy peaks as well as red rocks and lush valleys, the family landscape also reflects a wide spectrum of faith traditions, ages, marital status, political beliefs and more. As we see the diversity and strengths of the families of our state, I believe we can get past stereotypes and recognize that amidst the differences, at their heart, we all want similar things for our families: opportunity, education, growth and love.