SALT LAKE CITY — Utah claimed the nation’s smallest wealth gap again last year and a median household income among the highest in the West, show new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 2019 figures released late Wednesday don’t capture the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic as about 54,000 in the state file ongoing jobless claims and still others are back at work only part time. But they are a baseline for measuring fallout from COVID-19.
“This is like a glimpse into the world that we left behind,” said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute. But Perlich doesn’t expect Utah to give up its longtime spot as most even in terms of income. She said the state’s strong economy will help it weather the effects of the virus.
Adrian Anderson, 42, is similarly optimistic. The Layton father of three lost his job as an estimator with a plastics manufacturing company in April after corporate orders dried up.
Since then, he’s applied and interviewed for positions like his old one, plus a range of others, including some for about half his former salary. He wonders whether he’ll be able to match his former income whenever he returns to work.
“I need to put food on the table,” Anderson said. “It’s one of those things that keeps me up at night.”
The pressure is building as Anderson and his wife dip into savings to cover their mortgage and a deadline approaches: His unemployment benefits are set to expire in late October.
The Anderson family isn’t alone.
A different census survey measuring effects of the coronavirus found 1 in 4 Utah households were having difficulty covering usual household expenses, more than 30% believed they will likely be evicted or foreclosed on their homes, and 16.5% expected to lose income.
The virus has claimed 437 lives and sickened more than 50,000 in Utah.
The numbers out Wednesday from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show that before the pandemic hit, income inequality in the Beehive State held steady from 2018 to 2019 but remained smaller than the nation as a whole.
The Gini index, a measure of the wealth gap, has risen nationally over the last several years but dipped from a high in 2018 of 0.485 to 0.481. In Utah, it held steady at 0.427.
The index has a scale of zero to one — a score of zero reflects perfect equality, while a score of one indicates total inequality, where one household brings in all the income.
Neighboring Idaho and Wyoming trailed Utah’s most-even status, followed by South Dakota and Alaska. On the other end of the spectrum, those most unequal were Puerto Rico, New York, Washington, D.C, and Connecticut.
Utah’s relatively even income distribution stems largely from its large families and long-held title of youngest state in the nation, with a median age of 31.2, said Mark Knold, chief economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Older people have more time to accumulate wealth, he said.
The Beehive State also lacks the pockets of extreme poverty or exorbitant wealth seen in other parts of the nation.
“We don’t have that big power finance center. We don’t have a lot of national, world headquarters here,” Knold said. “What you end up with in Utah is you have the majority of (wealth) kind of bunched in the middle, balancing toward the middle more than any other state.”
Single-parent households also tend to have higher rates of poverty, Perlich noted, and Utah has the highest share of married households in the nation.
Shutdowns in the tourism, hospitality and entertainment industries could widen the income divide in Utah and across the nation as employees in those industries lose their jobs or take home less pay, while others in high-paying lines of work remain employed, Knold said.
But while the coronavirus has dealt a shock to the economy, Knold said he expects it to get back on track when a vaccine rolls out. He noted Utah has not seen levels of widespread job losses as those in other states. In July, it recorded the nation’s lowest unemployment rate of 4.5%.
Within Utah, West Jordan recorded the most even income across the board and Salt Lake City the least. But Perlich cautioned that the index isn’t as strong an indicator of inequality in small areas like cities and counties, where it tends to reflect similarities in the housing stock.
In the same time frame, median household income in the state ticked up to $75,780, the figures show. It’s a 4.3% increase from a year earlier and among the highest in the western U.S, although still less than Washington, California and Colorado.
Nationally, median household income was lower than in Utah, at $68,703 in 2019.
Other insights in the data:
The national poverty rate in 2019 was 10.5%, down for the fifth year in a row. Utah’s 9% rate was a slight increase from a year earlier that is not considered statistically significant.
More immigrants are calling Utah home. The state’s foreign-born population ticked up by 3,353 to a total of 274,575 in 2019.
Utahns as a whole didn’t move to a new home as frequently: 84.2% remained in the same home from a year earlier, up slightly from 83% in 2018.