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Augustina Ortega and Sergio Castino work at Santo Taco in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. According to census data, Utahns as a whole are bringing in more money, but those of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds aren’t taking home equal pieces of the pie.

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Census data shows income disparity between white and minority households persists in Utah

Augustina Ortega and Sergio Castino work at Santo Taco in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. According to census data, Utahns as a whole are bringing in more money, but those of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds aren’t taking home equal pieces of the pie.
| Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As a whole, Utah households are bringing in more money, but those of minority racial and ethnic backgrounds aren’t taking home equal pieces of the pie.

White household income in the Beehive State hovered just above $75,200 as of 2019 — about 45% more than Black homes and nearly 30% more than Hispanic families — new estimates released late Wednesday from the U.S. Census Bureau for 2015-2019 show.

The pandemic threatens to exacerbate the longtime disparities as workers in the service industry, including many Hispanic Utahns, find themselves working fewer hours or unemployed entirely.

“The people who have been impacted so adversely by COVID are the front-line workers, and many of those essential occupations are not very high wage occupations,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute.

For the second half of the 2010s, yearly median household income was about $71,600 for Utah overall, about a 10% increase from the first half of the decade, and above the national rate of roughly $62,800, Perlich and her colleagues note. They analyzed the American Community Survey release and shared their findings with the Deseret News.

Within the state picture, Hispanic households earned roughly $53,500. Asian families fared better at $73,100, ahead of Pacific Islanders at nearly $66,400.

Their Black neighbors brought in the lowest, at $41,700, and were the only group that appeared stagnant from five years earlier, said Mallory Bateman, a senior research analyst at the Gardner Institute.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to point out and resolve for a long time,” said Utah Black Chamber founder James Jackson III.

The large gap reflects that while companies have made efforts to hire a more diverse staff, the newer employees aren’t making as much as their white co-workers or getting access to the same level of training and mentoring, Jackson said. Moreover, there’s little racial and ethnic diversity at Utah’s highest levels of business and government.

“It’s more than just providing the jobs,” Jackson said, noting that his organization is setting up a mentoring program for Black Utahns to help fill the gaps. “There has to be intentional follow-up and follow through on these things.”

A job candidate with an advanced degree is more likely to get a job offer, he noted, even though a person with a less prestigious education might have the skills and just the right life experience.

The disparate levels of income among the groups are linked to educational attainment for each demographic, said Mark Knold, chief economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services. For example, roughly 36% of white Utahns have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 16% of Hispanic Utahns and about 17% of Black residents.

“Really, this is the driving factor,” Knold said. The income figures are slow to change even as more minority Utahns enroll in college, he said, noting it generally takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“This changes glacially,” Knold said.

For some communities, the education data may reflect that immigrants often arrive in Utah and get right to work, without the opportunity to pursue an education in the states. As they make a fresh start, Knold noted, their children are the ones who end up obtaining degrees.

Although the numbers may reflect greater numbers of single-adult households in the lower-income groups, there is racial and ethnic segregation in certain industries, Perlich noted.

Entrepreneurs Alfonso and Claudia Brito, originally of Veracruz and Mexico City, opened their restaurant in Salt Lake City’s Rose Park neighborhood last year. Santo Taco welcomed its first customers decades after the couple, both 52, first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley and began working in restaurant kitchens. They had long dreamed of serving up dishes like the carne asada dinners they cook for family and friends.

Orders hummed before COVID-19 arrived in Utah, but soared afterward as they streamlined their takeout business and neighbors rushed to support the fledgling eatery, they said.

While some other Hispanic business owners in Salt Lake City are seeing similar success, others have fallen on difficult times, in part due to a lack of information available in Spanish about government relief programs, said Alfonso Brito. Ahead of the pandemic, many in the state’s wider Latino community worked jobs that pay $11 or $12 an hour, requiring everyone of working age in a household to contribute.

“Our community is supporting all the service industry,” Alfonso Brito said.

Alex Guzman, a marketing expert and an importer for Utah restaurants, emphasized that Utah’s Hispanic community is diverse. Its members range from service and construction workers, some with two jobs, to entrepreneurs and interpreters.

Yet those perfectly qualified for a job sometimes lose out simply because hiring managers discriminate against them, said Guzman, the former president of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

“The next generation of Hispanics is getting more and more educated,” Guzman said. “I want to see these numbers with a lot of optimism, thinking and hoping and knowing that time after time, generation after generation, that gap in income is going to be reduced.”

Other insights in the data:

  • The share of Utah’s population that speaks a language other than English at home ticked up from five years earlier, from 14.6% to 15.4%.
  • Utah retained its longtime status as the youngest state in the nation, with a median age of 30.8. It also claimed the largest average household size, at 3.12.
  • The Beehive State maintained one of the smallest poverty rates in the nation, of 9.8%. It’s the fifth lowest in the U.S.
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