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Keep the Utah Family Miracle Going Strong

August 14, 2023

Utah lands at the top of many rankings of state performance across America. But the Beehive State is perhaps best known for its top rankings on the economic front. Utah’s economy is widely seen as the best in the nation. 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 & World Report.

But while Utah’s sky-high economic performance has gotten a lot of attention, the state has also gotten high marks when it comes to happiness. Numerous surveys of happiness put Utah in the top 10 states for emotional well-being. In fact, Gallup ranked Utah No. 1 for “well-being” in a recent study focusing on the emotional health, life evaluation, healthy behaviors, physical health and work environment of men and women across the nation. These rankings suggest that Utah has pioneered a unique state path combining prosperity and happiness in the 21st century. 

The strength of the Utah way can be attributed, no doubt, in part to the state’s unique civic, religious, and political endowments, including unusually high levels of social capital and low levels of government regulation. But Utah’s material and emotional success is also attributable to the strength and stability of its families

No state in the Union has as many men, women, and children in married households as the Beehive State. In 2021, 55% of adults in Utah (age 18-55) were married and 82% of its children were living in married-couple families. This compares to 45% of adults married and 75% of kids living in married families nationally. Utah’s regional family strength is visible in Figure 1, which shows how the state compares to other states in the region on the latter outcome. 

What could be called the “Utah Family Miracle” matters because social science tells us that one of the strongest predictors of state economic success is strong families. Recent research by economists Joseph Price at Brigham Young University and Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute, as well as Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia, indicates that one of the top predictors of economic performance across the states is the share of married parents in a state. In their words, “the percentage of parents who are married in a given state is typically a stronger predictor of the state’s economic mobility, child poverty, and median family income than are the education level, racial makeup, and age composition of its population.”

Likewise, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues found that the Salt Lake City metro area has some of the highest rates of economic mobility for poor children across America. One key reason for that finding is that the region has more two-parent families than other metro areas across the nation. Poor children in the Salt Lake area, for instance, are much more likely to be raised in a two-parent family and to be surrounded by peers from two-parent families than poor kids in other metro areas. In fact, in their research, Chetty and his colleagues found that “the strongest and most robust predictor [of children’s economic mobility] is the fraction of children [in the community] with single parents.” These are but two empirical indications that Utah’s economic miracle depends in no small part on the strength and stability of its families. 

Although we do not have any direct empirical evidence that Utah’s high marks for happiness are derived from the strength of its families, lots of indirect evidence points in that direction. Studies tell us that men and women who are married are more likely to be flourishing psychologically in general, and happy in particular.

In fact, research indicates the most powerful predictor of adult happiness in America is the quality of men’s and women’s marriages. The “estimated contribution of marital happiness is far greater than the estimated contribution of [other] kinds of satisfaction, including satisfaction with work,” noted sociologists Norval Glenn and Charles Weaver. Research like this suggests that the emotional health of the Beehive State is linked to the strength of its families. 

Download the full report, The Utah Family Miracle, here . . .

About the Author

W. Bradford Wilcox