Opinion: Utahns lead the nation on social capital — but do we spend enough time with our kids?
Utah exceeds averages on the Utah Foundation’s Social Capital Series — but there are a few areas where Utah falls short
When it comes to the network of relationships people use to benefit themselves and the larger community, Utah stands apart from the nation at large. In late July, the Utah Foundation released the eighth report in its Social Capital Series, summarizing the findings of the series and tallying the metrics we deployed. Utah emerged with a strikingly high composite score of 94. This contrasts sharply with the national number, 54.
Social capital comes in many forms. The Utah Foundation examined roughly 30 metrics in seven categories: civic engagement, social trust, community life, families, economic mobility, social cohesion and the focus on the next generation. Strong social capital is foundational to a strong economy and a strong society.
And the importance of social capital cannot be overstated.
Low social capital levels often lead to poor economic and social outcomes, both for individuals and for populations. As social capital declines, the challenges become more acute — and social scientists across the political spectrum affirm that social capital in the U.S. is in long-term decline. To the extent that social capital fails, citizens often ask government to pick up the slack. That may come in the form of social programs, education spending, police or other investments. It all costs the taxpayer money. But in places where social capital is comparatively robust, it can translate into heightened economic prospects and lower demands on the public sector.
Utah is just such a place.
In 2021, Utah had the highest level of social capital in the nation and was consistently among the top states during the previous eight years. Following a decline, Utah’s index number began rising after 2017.
Interestingly, neighboring Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona have some of the very lowest social capital in the nation. This says Utah’s social capital strengths are not a given or a regional feature. Utahns should pay close attention to social capital, shoring up its strengths and addressing its weaknesses.
The strengths span multiple categories.
Utah is in the top third of states in terms of civic engagement. It ranks third in the nation when it comes to social trust. Utah’s robust community life is one of the biggest differentiators compared to other states, with high levels of charitable donations, volunteerism, religious service attendance and participation in community projects; it ranks second in the nation in this category. Utah performs best in the nation on the factors related to family life — driven primarily by its high levels of marriage and children in married families. Utah is in the middle of the pack, but above average, when it comes to social cohesion. While Utah is fifth in the nation when it comes to the focus on future generations, it has seen a substantial decline since 2013. Utah is fifth in the nation when it comes to social mobility.
Through this convergence, it becomes apparent that many of the driving metrics are complementary. For instance, family stability tends to drive economic mobility. High levels of religious participation seeps into other various categories of participation in civic life. The strengths appear to be parts of a whole.
However, there are areas of concern or metrics that at least deserve a closer look. We discovered across several metrics that Utah has low levels of organizations per capita, whether they are professional, nonprofessional, advocacy or youth organizations. We also found that while Utah has strong family structure, the state saw an alarming decline in parents spending quality time with children — particularly family meals and reading to young children. That changed substantially in 2020 due to the pandemic, but unless parents step up, electronic entertainment devices will continue to consume a growing share of childhood. Finally, in terms of its focus on future generations, Utah has seen a decline in multiple metrics.
Social capital may be Utah’s very backbone. Everybody — from business and civic leaders to policymakers and individual families — should look to bolster those elements that have led to social flourishing in Utah.
Peter Reichard is president of the Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research organization. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find the full Utah Social Capital Series at the Utah Foundation website.