Thursday, March 30, 2017

Upward Mobility

Here at the Spherical Model, we talk about the interrelationships of the political, economic, and social spheres. Freedom affects prosperity, and both are significantly affected by the civilization level of the people.

I came across a long piece by Megan McCardle for Bloomberg News (I’m estimating 25-30 pages, but online it’s a bit uncertain) about the state of Utah, where I grew up. And the interrelationships are evident.

Let’s start with some descriptions. The story begins with the population: 192,672. That’s the city proper. But that’s not really accurate. That puts it in the range of the Tri-Cities in Washington State (Kennewick, Richland, and Pasco together), which has a small town feel, and not even a 4-year college. The Salt Lake metropolitan area is actually well over a million. And if you extend the area north to Ogden and south to Provo, you’re up to nearly 2.5 million. It’s not as big as, say, Houston, but it’s significant in population size.

Salt Lake City, view from airplane, May 2014

Salt Lake City and surrounding areas have a high percentage of Mormons, since the valley was settled by Mormons after they had been driven from five previous homes by mobs burning and looting their property and killing them. (The Governor of Missouri had signed an extermination order, which made murdering Mormons legal.) So, it’s no wonder they wanted a place of their own, away from threats, where they could settle permanently.

Going back there, when daughter Social Sphere went to college, she commented, “I’ve never seen so many blonds.” I hadn’t noticed it growing up, but she was right. It’s a little startling after Texas. A lot of the Utah population comes from the northeastern US, plus many from England and Scandinavia (my heritage). So blonds are common.

But there are other notable demographics as well. Hispanics are around 22%. Then there are sizable populations of Pacific Islanders, and Asians (Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka), and Bosnians.

There are only about 2.7% blacks. There has never been a migration of blacks to Utah. There has also never been slavery, and blacks (and women) had the vote all along, before statehood in the 1890s (statehood took away the women’s right to vote for a couple of decades). McArdle asserts that institutional racism is the reason blacks stay away—I have to say that’s an incorrect assessment of the people, and of the Mormons. But I’ll save that debate for another day.

Anyway, some of the comparisons between Utah and other places are like apples and oranges just because there isn’t an underlying racism issue. And another overriding question is, can the things that are working be transferred elsewhere, or is it because of the Mormons?

Upward Mobility

Upward mobility—the American Dream—is more likely in Utah than in the rest of the US. The main impetus of the article is to explore why there is this upward mobility gap:

A child born in the bottom quintile of incomes in Charlotte [North Carolina] has only a 4 percent chance of making it into the top quintile. A child in Salt Lake City, on the other hand, has more than a 10.8 percent chance—achingly close to the 11.7 percent found in Denmark and well on the way to the 20 percent chance you would expect in a perfectly just world.
Government Spending

Government spending isn’t the reason. Utah’s government seems to commit very limited funds for both fighting poverty and for education. “Utah is dead last in per-pupil education spending.” It’s not last in educational outcomes, however. For K-12 schools, it ranks 22nd, but in higher education it ranks 2nd. For overall education it ranks 9th.

They have a surprising solution for homelessness that seems to be working, called “Housing First.” It turns out, if you just outright pay for housing for the homeless, before dealing with the cause of that individual’s homelessness, it’s cheaper and more effective than the crisis-led practice of dealing with them once they show up in emergency rooms.

As McArdle summarizes:

That’s the thing about the government here. It is not big, but it’s also not … bad. The state’s compassionate conservatism goes hand-in-hand with an unusually functional bureaucracy.
Volunteer Help

Besides actually cheerful, helpful government workers, the biggest factor seems to be community involvement, with an army of volunteers.

The volunteering starts in the church wards, where bishops keep a close eye on what’s going on in the congregation, and tap members as needed to help each other. If you’re out of work, they may reach out to small business people to find out who’s hiring. If your marriage is in trouble, they’ll find a couple who went through a hard time themselves to offer advice.
Besides the very local, very personal volunteering, there’s also larger, more institutional helping. Welfare Square is visited by governments all over the country and the world, to see how it’s done, and to see what they can replicate. It’s not just a food pantry; it’s a production facility—actually a network of production facilities: bakeries, dairies, canneries, farms, orchards, and more.

Here in Houston we have a peanut butter cannery producing for Church welfare storehouses in Utah and all over. It’s run by volunteer labor. Additionally, the cannery is used by the Houston Food Bank to produce about 400,000 jars a year for local food pantries. The only jars actually sold are to Mormons buying a case or so for their personal family pantries. All the rest is donated to the poor.

LDS Peanut Butter Factory in Houston

Help from the Church is intended to be temporary. And recipients are expected to do volunteer work in exchange for the help, whenever physically possible. Usually help will be to tide a household over for a matter of a few months, all the while helping them find gainful employment, or head toward the training or education they need. There’s no life-long welfare help in the Church.

McArdle contrasts that with government programs:

This combination of financial help and the occasional verbal kick in the pants is something close to what the ideal of government help used to be. Social workers used to make individual judgments about what sort of help their clients needed or deserved. But such judgments always have an inherently subjective and arbitrary quality, which courts began to frown on in the middle of the 20th century, in part because they offered considerable discretion for racial discrimination.
Turning government welfare into an automatic entitlement based on simple rules undoubtedly made it fairer, and kept people from slipping through the cracks. But making it harder to remove benefits from people who stopped trying also made it easier for people to make understandable short-term decisions which turned into long-term dependence, leaving a significant number of people disconnected from work and mired in multi-generational poverty.
One of the factors in upward mobility is what BYU research David Sims calls “middle classness that’s so broad it’s almost infectious.” He means that young people are exposed to social differences beyond how they were raised. Moving up looks possible. And belief leads to efforts to succeed.

Lots of Marriage, Not Much Alcohol

Mormons contribute some additional social benefits. Mormons don’t drink alcohol, so poverty-related outcomes of alcohol addiction are a much smaller problem in Utah.

Also, Mormons are more likely to be married. We’ve talked about the formula for avoiding poverty in America at the Spherical Model from time to time. That comes up again here:

Economists Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins famously estimated that we could reduce poverty by 71 percent if the poor did just four things: finished high school, worked full time, got married and had no more than two children — and the number of children was the least important factor in that calculation.
Salt Lake Temple,
photo from the Conference Center
in the rain, January 2012, by Social Sphere
Marriage avoids poverty not only for the couple as individuals, but also for the children in the next generation. Marriage builds social capital. In areas of the US where it looks like upward mobility is racially caused, “once they controlled for the family structure of the community, that effect disappeared. Marriage seems to have more of a correlation with mobility than race does.”
And not just the families of married parents benefit; neighborhoods benefit:

If you live in a neighborhood full of single mothers who had a hard time finishing school, that’s probably the future you’ll expect for yourself and your own kids. If you live in a neighborhood full of thriving two-parent families, that’s probably the future you’ll envision, even if your own father disappeared when you were 2. Marriage matters at the individual level, but it also matters at the community level, because the community can strongly shape individual behavior.
That sounds just like something we’d come up with here at the Spherical Model. Families are the basic unit of civilization. You need a critical mass of families with intact married parents in order to get out of savagery and into civilization.


So, here’s what you need, if you want Utah’s results of exiting poverty. You need married parents raising families with stability and caring. You need a volunteer force to care for the less fortunate. You need people willing to care for one another, rather than leaving that to government. And you need minimal government bureaucracy that, where necessary, is done with care and efficiency.

You might get that where there’s not a handy supply of Mormons. I’m even hopeful that it is possible. That’s what the Spherical Model shows. But if you need social capital to get underway, it sure is handy to start with a Mormon population.

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