Why Low-Income Kids Thrive in Salt Lake City

This small Western metro has some of the best rates of upward mobility in the country. Can the city sustain that as it grows and diversifies?

The Salt Lake Temple is framed by Cherry blossoms during the 184th annual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Mormons, on April 5, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
April 29, 2014, 9:55 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the sum­mer of 2013, four prom­in­ent eco­nom­ists from Har­vard and the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) named Salt Lake City one of the best places in the coun­try for up­ward mo­bil­ity. Low-in­come kids who grew up in the re­gion, the re­search­ers found, had some of the greatest chances of mov­ing up the in­come lad­der as they aged. 

Salt Lake City, with roughly 180,000 res­id­ents, shared the ad­mir­able dis­tinc­tion with ma­jor coastal cit­ies such as San Diego, San Fran­cisco, Seattle, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., New York, and Bo­ston. The list gen­er­ated sig­ni­fic­ant buzz in aca­dem­ic, eco­nom­ic, and urb­an-plan­ning circles both for its broad scope and for its find­ing that where people live can pro­foundly af­fect their chil­dren’s eco­nom­ic fu­tures. The U.S. is no longer uni­formly the land of op­por­tun­ity, the study showed, un­less you happened to live in the right place.

For their part, Salt Lake City of­fi­cials her­al­ded the study as yet an­oth­er piece of evid­ence for the re­gion’s high qual­ity of life, along­side its low un­em­ploy­ment rate. But for an­oth­er group of loc­als — so­cial work­ers, edu­cat­ors, and com­munity ad­voc­ates — the study was also a cau­tion­ary tale.  

In their view, the study re­flec­ted Salt Lake City’s re­cent past, when the pop­u­la­tion was far more ho­mo­gen­eous and its eco­nom­ic chal­lenges easi­er to ad­dress. The de­scrip­tion no longer fits the city as neatly, giv­en its in­creased di­versity, burdened edu­ca­tion sys­tem, and neigh­bor­hoods in­creas­ingly se­greg­ated by class. “From what I see every day, we are in a real crisis right now,” says Rose­marie Hunter, a so­cial work­er and the dir­ect­or of Uni­versity Neigh­bor­hood Part­ners, a Uni­versity of Utah out­reach neigh­bor­hood pro­gram centered on low-in­come com­munit­ies. “Not all, but of those some of the mark­ers that gave us that great rank­ing have gone away.”

To main­tain its status as a mod­el for the Amer­ic­an Dream, Salt Lake City gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, civic lead­ers, and the power­ful Mor­mon church are pur­su­ing vari­ous strategies in schools and neigh­bor­hoods to try to con­tin­ue to give lower-in­come chil­dren the best boost up the in­come lad­der.

Salt Lake City still pos­sesses two of the ma­jor strengths that made it one of the best cit­ies in the coun­try for up­ward mo­bil­ity: a strong middle class and a less ex­treme gap between the rich and the poor. But what wor­ries Salt Lake City aca­dem­ics and ad­voc­ates now is that the city has fallen be­hind on oth­er factors as it has be­come more glob­al and di­verse. “We’re be­gin­ning to see the start of in­tergen­er­a­tion­al poverty here, where­as we have not seen that in the past,” says Pamela Per­lich, a seni­or re­search eco­nom­ist with the loc­al Bur­eau of Eco­nom­ic and Busi­ness Re­search. And that raises ques­tions about wheth­er Salt Lake City, like oth­er rap­idly chan­ging urb­an areas, can con­tin­ue to provide the best op­por­tun­it­ies for its low-in­come kids.

Change Comes to Salt Lake City

The Salt Lake City of the 1980s was a smal­ler town with a some­what uni­form pop­u­la­tion. Ab­sent were many miles of bus routes and train tracks that link the city’s pub­lic trans­port­a­tion sys­tem. The gleam­ing City Creek Cen­ter — a down­town shop­ping mall, hous­ing com­plex, and mixed use de­vel­op­ment — had not yet been built by the deep-pock­eted Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints along the city’s cent­ral artery.

The pop­u­la­tion at the time was fairly ho­mo­gen­eous: white and Mor­mon. Fam­il­ies largely stayed in­tact, thanks to the cul­tur­al in­flu­ence of the LDS Church and its em­phas­is on mar­riage. The Mor­mons’ act­ive so­cial safety net sys­tem propped up the lives of any mem­bers in need. And even the pub­lic school sys­tem faced a re­l­at­ively ba­sic task, primar­ily edu­cat­ing nat­ive Eng­lish-speak­ing, middle-class kids.

As it hap­pens, the old Salt Lake City checked the boxes that the Har­vard and Berke­ley eco­nom­ists would later de­term­ine make a city achieve high rates of so­cial mo­bil­ity. In the 1980s and 1990s, the study showed that a low-in­come child in Salt Lake City had a 10.8 per­cent chance of rising up the in­come lad­der to the top 20 per­cent. (San Jose boas­ted a high­er prob­ab­il­ity of 12.9 per­cent, where­as the city of Char­lotte provided its low-in­come kids with just a 4.4 per­cent chance.) The eco­nom­ists based the study on fed­er­al in­come-tax re­cords of 40 mil­lion U.S. par­ents and their chil­dren, born between 1980 and 1982.

The study also iden­ti­fied five factors that can help to in­crease so­cial mo­bil­ity in dif­fer­ent cit­ies: less eco­nom­ic se­greg­a­tion, a good pub­lic school sys­tem, strong fam­ily sta­bil­ity, a re­li­able so­cial safety net, and less in­come in­equal­ity. Areas with less urb­an sprawl and less ra­cial se­greg­a­tion also per­formed bet­ter in the rank­ings, the re­search­ers found.

That’s why the raw data the re­search­ers used for the study, from the 1980s and 1990s, vaul­ted Salt Lake City to the top of their list. The city of roughly 30 years ago boas­ted a good school sys­tem, hy­per-strong so­cial safety net, a strong middle class, and little se­greg­a­tion — eco­nom­ic or ra­cial — be­cause Salt Lake back then was so white, so middle class. 

“Salt Lake City sur­prised me. I’ve nev­er been there,” says Hendren when asked about the list’s com­pos­i­tion. “The bot­tom of the list also sur­prised me. I’ve been to Mem­ph­is and At­lanta and would not have guessed those were some of the least mo­bile places in the U.S.”

Yet many loc­als say the Salt Lake City of today can no longer claim many of those char­ac­ter­ist­ics. The city does still boast a strong middle class and a great­er per­cent­age of its fam­il­ies re­main in­tact com­pared to na­tion­al fig­ures. Salt Lake City also has some of the low­est rates of in­come in­equal­ity in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Utah Found­a­tion, a statewide pub­lic policy re­search group. 

But a huge range of its oth­er at­trib­utes have shif­ted. For one, it is no longer the case that the ma­jor­ity of Salt Lake City res­id­ents be­long to the LDS Church, a cul­tur­al shift that dis­tin­guishes it from the rest of the state and means that few­er loc­als can take ad­vant­age of the church’s wel­fare for its mem­bers. More than 50 per­cent of school-age chil­dren in Salt Lake City are minor­it­ies, with more than 100 lan­guages spoken in stu­dents’ homes in the River Dis­trict alone. This has com­plic­ated the mis­sion of the pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem, es­pe­cially since Utah has the low­est school fund­ing per pu­pil in the na­tion.

There’s also great­er geo­graph­ic­al di­vide now between the well-off and low-in­come people. Any vis­it­or can tell this just by driv­ing along In­ter­state 15, the high­way that cuts the city in­to two halves. The east­ern por­tion has a demo­graph­ic makeup sim­il­ar to Ver­mont — white, well-off, home to the uni­versity cam­pus, State­house, and down­town dis­trict of of­fices and res­taur­ants. To the west of I-15 sits low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods that house the most re­cent in­flux of im­mig­rants or refugees or low-in­come fam­il­ies. In one dis­trict on the West Side, as many as 90 per­cent of school kids qual­i­fy for free or re­duced priced lunches.

The new­found poverty looks like this: On a re­cent Thursday af­ter­noon, West Side res­id­ents lined up two hours in ad­vance to pick up gro­cer­ies from a loc­al food pantry. Old, young, white, His­pan­ic, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and dis­abled single people and fam­il­ies sat on wooden benches or stood in line, wait­ing for the truck to show up with the food.

Forty-four-year-old Peggy Pace star­ted vis­it­ing the pantry about three months ago, when she could not pick up enough hours at her tem­por­ary job with the U.S. Postal Ser­vice to pay her rent and buy food. Her three grown chil­dren work blue-col­lar or min­im­um-wage jobs at UPS, an auto shop, and a re­tail store. They did man­age to gradu­ate from high school, un­like Pace — but she still does not be­lieve any of them have leaped ahead to forge a more eco­nom­ic­ally se­cure lives than hers. “I didn’t feel like the kids had amaz­ing op­por­tun­it­ies here,” she says, her bleached hair pulled back in­to a high pony­tail.

Solv­ing Prob­lems the Salt Lake City Way

Fig­ur­ing out a way to en­sure that Salt Lake City’s low-in­come kids can prosper and con­tin­ue to move up the in­come lad­der has be­come a bit of an ob­ses­sion with­in the past two years among cer­tain groups. Even the LDS Church, which re­serves its ro­bust char­ity for mem­bers, has joined the con­ver­sa­tion. (With its in­ter­na­tion­al headquar­ters based in Salt Lake City, the church has a ves­ted in­terest in the city’s fu­ture.) “We know there are gaps now in com­munity ser­vices for im­mig­rants, or those in the com­munity without a loud voice. We’re try­ing to fig­ure out how we, as an in­sti­tu­tion, can sup­port those needs,” says Rick Foster, the man­ager of hu­man­it­ari­an ser­vices for North Amer­ica for the LDS Church.

The Uni­versity of Utah star­ted an out­reach pro­gram more than a dec­ade ago on the West Side to form part­ner­ships with busi­nesses, non­profits, and schools to bet­ter serve low-in­come people. One pro­gram, the West­side Lead­er­ship In­sti­tute, trains res­id­ents to be­come more polit­ic­ally act­ive in neigh­bor­hoods and to ac­cess de­cision makers. “Thir­teen years ago, the uni­versity looked at its data and real­ized that two ZIP codes in the city had vir­tu­ally no stu­dents com­ing to the uni­versity. That was a huge red flag,” says Hunter of Uni­versity Neigh­bor­hood Part­ners.

The Salt Lake City School Dis­trict is also try­ing to ad­dress what its su­per­in­tend­ent be­lieves is a grow­ing poverty prob­lem. One strategy? Open a hand­ful of com­munity cen­ters, like the Gl­end­ale-Moun­tain View Com­munity Learn­ing Cen­ter. Housed in a new $4.6 mil­lion build­ing ad­ja­cent to an ele­ment­ary and middle school, the cen­ter of­fers med­ic­al and dent­al care, men­tal health coun­sel­ing, and classes to the roughly 6,000 people who live in the neigh­bor­hood.

“This state has a good net­work of tak­ing care of people in need,” says Nat­alie Gouch­nour, the as­so­ci­ate dean of the Dav­id Ec­cles School of Busi­ness at the Uni­versity of Utah and chief eco­nom­ist and seni­or ad­viser to the Salt Lake Cham­ber of Com­merce. “Part of that comes from the Mor­mon cul­ture, but part of it is just the eth­os of the state.”

Still, there’s no guar­an­tee that these dis­par­ate ex­per­i­ments will pre­serve the city’s over­all level of so­cial mo­bil­ity. “There’s not one good solu­tion to all of these dis­par­it­ies across the U.S.,” Hendren says. “We know that the qual­ity of schools can mat­ter as one ex­ample, but Amer­ic­ans still don’t agree on the right policy to im­prove the schools.”

Still, Salt Lake City’s non­profit lead­ers, edu­cat­ors, and aca­dem­ics feel op­tim­ist­ic. “We don’t have in­tract­able em­ploy­ment prob­lems like De­troit or St. Louis, or the blight,” says Per­lich. Salt Lake City is also a small enough place, she adds, “with the tra­di­tion and where­with­al to do something.” It’s just a mat­ter of wheth­er every­one city­wide (and on both sides of that high­way) has the will and the re­sources to tackle the chal­lenge.

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