Sociologist Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia professor and the director of the National Marriage Project, stood in front of several Utah legislators and other thought leaders in downtown Salt Lake City last month and praised Utah for its well-known economic strength.

“The ‘Utah economic miracle’ — marked by exceptional economic growth, a favorable business climate and high rates of economic mobility — has garnered attention across the nation and helps explain why Utah’s economy ranks No. 1 among all 50 states, according to U.S. News and World Report.” The quote comes directly from a joint report from Sutherland Institute, which hosted the downtown presentation, and the Institute for Family Studies at BYU. It was summarized in an article published in the Deseret News last month.

There is another factor to this Utah success story, however, and that is the strength of Utah families. Drawing on research by economists Joseph Price at BYU and Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute, Wilcox’s own comprehensive look at the impact of marriage and families puts forth the following conclusion: “One of the top predictors of economic performance across the states is the share of married parents in a state.” He added, “Utah’s economic miracle depends in no small part on the strength and stability of its families.”

This Utah Family Miracle, as they call it, requires supporting families of all stripes. Strong families build strong economies and upward mobility. It is also a predictor of overall happiness. We support the effort to build policies that would strengthen families and encourage stability. This includes policies that support, rather than detract from marriage, particularly as dropping fertility rates across the nation and the world are rapidly becoming the next great crisis. Utah, which is typically among states with the highest fertility rates, is not immune to those changes and has seen fertility rates drop.

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Economist Natalie Gochnour in a Deseret News opinion piece in April noted that Utah is again at an inflection point, “grounded in unyielding demographic changes and a diverse economy consistently performing at a nation-leading level.”

Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, pointed to the following:

  • “From 2010 to 2020, Utah transitioned from a small state to a midsize state by leap frogging four states to become the nation’s 30th most populous state. During this decade, Utah’s population passed Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Iowa and currently ranks just behind Connecticut, which I predict Utah will outsize before 2030.”
  • “Utah has experienced net in-migration for 31 of the past 32 years; I don’t see this trend changing anytime soon. Net in-migration contributed nearly two-thirds of Utah’s population growth in each of the past two years. In the past, two-thirds of Utah’s growth has come from ourselves (births minus deaths).”

What do those new Utahns find when they get here? Is it a state that remains conducive to family life? Public policy, therefore, must take into account not just friendly business climate, but also friendly family climate.

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How do you do that?

Wilcox and his associates, as well as the Sutherland Institute, put forth the following framework for policy.

  • Strengthen marriage — measured in terms of both the rate and stability of marriage.
  • Encourage couples to have the children they wish to have. Couples are marrying later in life and report economic realities (and fears) for their decisions to have fewer children than they say they otherwise might have.
  • Make family life affordable for ordinary working families. Policy discussions could include creation of a state family allowance for families with young children, for example.
  • Enable husbands, wives, children and especially parents to maximize their time with their families. What support do they need?
  • Increase the quality of family relationships by increasing positive interactions and reducing negative interactions (for example domestic violence or other family-crushing interactions).

The hard work is ahead for both those in the public and private sector. What policies can be put in place in private companies to strengthen individuals and families? What can the state Legislature do to not just safeguard children and families, but incentivize stable families?

This is work worth doing.

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