State Policy

New Economic Benchmarking Report Finds Utah Ahead of Arizona in Most Key Metrics of Economic Opportunity and Standard of Living

Salt Lake City, May 6, 2021 - Voices for Utah Children released today the fourth in its series of pdfeconomic benchmarking reports that evaluate how the Utah economy is experienced by median- and lower-income families by benchmarking Utah against another state.  This year's report, authored by Taylor Throne and Matthew Weinstein with support from interns from the University of Utah Department of Economics, compares Utah to its southern neighbor, Arizona.  Utah and Arizona have a nearly identical proportion of working age adults (18 to 64 years), increasingly diverse populations, and ready access to outdoor recreational opportunities here in the American Southwest.  The findings in this year's report shed light on some of Utah's greatest strengths as well as where we can continue to improve. 

Voices for Utah Children's State Priorities Partnership Director Matthew Weinstein commented, "The main takeaways from this report and the others in the series are that Utah's economic successes put us in a position to make the new upfront investments we need to make now -- in education, public health, poverty prevention, and closing majority-minority gaps -- so that we can achieve our true potential and follow in the footsteps of states like Colorado and Minnesota that have become high-wage states and achieved a higher standard of living, and do it in such a way that all our children can have a better future."  

The report release presentation took place online and can be viewed at . The presenters included both Taylor Throne and Matthew Weinstein as well as a special guest, David Lujan, Director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, to share the Arizona perspective on the report. 


Utah's Top Economic Advantages: Hard Work & Strong Families Allow Utah to Enjoy High Household Incomes and Low Poverty 

Utah enjoys a higher real median household income than Arizona, ranking #11 nationally, although there are significant gaps between the median wage of different racial and ethnic groups.  Utah's higher incomes are due largely to our high labor force participation rates and our preponderance of two-worker (often two-parent) households.  

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Utah Has Lower Poverty Rates Overall But Still Suffers from Large Racial/Ethnic Gaps 

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Educational Attainment: Utah Ahead of Arizona But Falling Behind the Nation

The charts below from our latest benchmarking report compare Utah, Arizona and the nation as a whole on educational attainment. Historically Utah was well ahead of the nation, but more recently evidence has mounted that the younger generation of Utahns is not keeping up with the nation's gains at the level of higher education.  Moreover, there are stark racial/ethnic gaps in both states and the nation as a whole. 

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Utah's high school graduation rates are at or below national averages for most racial/ethnic categories, including our two largest groups, Whites and Latinos. 

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We're also very concerned that Utah's gap between high school graduation rates for Whites and Latinos is larger than nationally. 

HS grad rate gaps

  The chart below illustrates the way that Utah's younger generation of adults has fallen behind the higher education attainment of the Millennial generation nationally.

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Can Utah Learn Any Lessons from Arizona's Strengths?

Besides Arizona's #11 rank for equal gender wage ratio (while Utah ranks #49), Arizona has more of its children in full-day kindergarten, has a lower 10th percentile hourly wage, and higher productivity.  Arizona's higher 10th percentile hourly wage is likely due to their higher minimum wage, although they do have more people earning poverty level wages overall.  Meanwhile, Utah has fewer people earning poverty level wages overall, but those at the 10th percentile for hourly wages earn less than their Arizonian counterparts. 

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Summary of Key Findings

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The full 56-page report is pdfavailable here as a pdf download.  

Policy Implications

Racial/Ethnic Gaps

Racial and ethnic gaps remain a major challenge in the nation overall, and Utah and Arizona are no exception. Disparities in Utah between minority racial & ethnic groups compared to their White non-Hispanic peers are evident in high school graduation rates, wages, gender pay gaps, poverty rates, and uninsured rates. Addressing these gaps through an upfront investment in education would likely increase educational attainment, wages, and standard of living overall and would therefore contribute to reducing racial and ethnic gaps in the future.   

The Link Between Education and Income

The link between education and income is well-established. States with higher education levels generally have higher levels of worker productivity, wages, and incomes. In the current comparison with Arizona, Utah’s higher education levels make for higher levels of wages and income. The lesson for Arizona would be raise education levels to raise the state’s standard of living. The same applies to Utah, where the Legislature has struggled to turn seemingly large dollar increases in education funding every year into increases in real per-pupil investment sufficient to get Utah out of last place in the national ranking.

The latest data from the Census Bureau reports that Utah remains in last place in per-pupil education investment at $7,628, with Arizona only slightly better at $8,239 and 47th in the nation (for FY 2018). While Utah has done well for its meager investment levels, achieving impressive gains in educational performance as measured by NAEP 4th and 8th grade math and reading scores (see Figure 31, page 25), will we be able to continue to advance while remaining in last place?  

While Utah “does more with less” in education compared to other states, we have growing challenges to address. Utah has racial/ethnic education gaps which are larger than the national average, for example for Hispanic and American Indian high school graduation rates (see Figure 33, page 26). Utah’s pupil-to-teacher ratio is 22.9, ranking 48th while the national average is 16 (see Figure 22, page 21). Moreover, Utah teacher pay has also fallen over the past 50 years by 1.8% while nationally teacher salaries have increased 6.7% (see figure 24, page 22). 

At the college level, Utah historically was always ahead of the national average for attainment of bachelor’s degrees and above. But Census data show Utah’s lead shrinking relative to the nation with each successive generation, to the point now that Utah millennials (ages 25-34) are behind their peers nationally, despite relatively generous state support and low tuition levels.

Can Utah Become a High-Wage State?

For many years, economists have debated whether Utah is a low-wage state, as the Utah Foundation discussed in their 2008 report, “Is Utah Really a Low-Wage State?”[1] That report argued that our seemingly low wages were explained by our younger demographic profile and lower cost of living. While this report does not examine how wages intersect with age demographics, Utah ranks 29th in median hourly wages, compared to 41st in 2004 (see chart below).  When adjusted for our low cost of living, Utah’s median hourly wage in 2019 was $19.17, just 16 cents lower than the national level. These data seem to demonstrate that Utah has gone from being a low-wage state a generation ago to middle-wage status today, a considerable accomplishment.

UT rank in median wages

One question Utah leaders may now wish to consider is, is that good enough? Should we declare, “Mission Accomplished”? Or is Utah in a position, like Colorado and Minnesota before us, to become, over time, a high-wage state and set our sights on taking the necessary steps today to achieve that goal over the years and decades to come? 

Similarly, how do we include those earning the lowest wages in the gains Utah has made and will potentially make in the future?  Utah is not even a half percentage point lower than the national share of workers earning poverty level wages (see Figure 55, page 38) and lags behind the nation’s 10th percentile wage, ranking 30th (see Figure 54, page 37).  Even as the state with the lowest income inequality ranking in the nation (see Figure 45, page 31), Utah suffers from a tremendous gap between low-income workers and the rest of the income scale.

The main lesson that emerges from the Working Families Benchmarking Project reports comparing Utah to Colorado, Minnesota, Idaho and now Arizona is the following: Higher levels of educational attainment translate into higher hourly wages, higher family incomes, and an overall higher standard of living. The challenge for policymakers is to determine the right combination of public investments in education, infrastructure, public health, and other critical needs that will enable Utah to continue our progress and achieve not just steady growth in the quantity of jobs, but also a rising standard of living that includes moderate- and lower-income working families from all of Utah’s increasingly diverse communities.




Facebook Live Event discussing the report overall joined by David Lujan, Director of Arizona Center for Economic Progress at Children's Action Alliance:

Facebook Live Event focusing on women in higher education, the gender pay gap, and income equality with panelists: Dr. Susan Madsen, Founder and Director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project; Marshall Steinbaum Ph.D., Associate Professor at the University of Utah's department of Economics; and Gabriella Archuleta JPP MPP, Policy Analyst with YWCA Utah.

Facebook Live Event focusing on Utah's economic success and economic development strategy with panelists: Howard Stephenson MPA, former Utah Senator; Phil Dean MS MPA, public finance senior research fellow at the Gardner Institute; and Thomas Maloney PhD., Professor, Department of Economics, University of Utah. 

Facebook Live Event focusing on education in Utah from pre-school to higher education, focusing on educational attainment & closing racial and ethnic gaps with panelists: Carrie Mayne, Chief Economist for Utah System of Higher Education; Andrea Rorrer PhD., Director of the University of Utah's Education Policy Center; and  Anna Thomas MPA, Senior Policy Analyst at Voices for Utah Children.

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Voices for Utah Children recently released our annual data book Measures of Child Well-Being in Utah along with the National Annie E. Casey Data Book. These annual publications provide citizens, advocates, community leaders and policymakers with the most timely and comprehensive data regarding the health and well-being of Utah's children. Combined, these publications provide a look at how Utah compares to the rest of the nation, as well as a more in-depth picture of child well-being at the county level. Used together, these data books are a reliable source for accurate information that can help shape priorities and policies to improve the well-being of Utah's children.

If we had a crystal ball that told us how our children would be doing two, five, or ten years down the road we could make thoughtful, calculated policy decisions. To make plans for an increasing number of children it is imperative that we have good data on how children have fared in the past and how that compares to today. That is one of the basic premises of the KIDS COUNT Project - provide accurate, accessible data to make sure the future that is “just around the corner” is a positive one for all of Utah’s children.

One of the things we know about children in Utah is that there will be more of them in the future. Population estimates from the U. S. Census Bureau indicate that the number of children in Utah in 2011 was 882,354. By 2015 that number had risen to 912,496. By 2050, the Utah Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget projects that Utah’s child population will be well over a million at 1,388,651. With an expanding child population, it is important to understand what the needs are today so we can plan for tomorrow. So how are the children doing?

According to the National Data book, improvements have been achieved across almost all key areas of well-being for children. The state is ranked seventh nationally in overall child well-being, landing in the top ten for both child economic well-being and family and community context. This data points to the fact that children in Utah are benefiting from state policies aimed at helping them succeed.

Boosted by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicaid and a push for outreach, Utah has dramatically increased access to health insurance for children: Between 2014 and 2015, 20,000 fewer children lacked coverage. This progress has helped Utah recover from a fall to 27th place in child health last year, and the state now ranks 19th nationally. However, at 7%, the percentage of children without insurance is still above the national average and more can be done to provide kids with the health and security proven to better position them for success later in life.

The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book uses 16 indicators to rank each state across four domains — health, education, economic well-being and family and community — that represent what children need most to thrive. Utah ranks:

  • 5th in economic well-being. At 20 percent, Utah has one of the nation’s lowest percentages of children who have no parent with full-time, year-round employment. However, the percentage of children living in poverty remained unchanged at 13 percent between 2014 and 2015.
  • 15th in education. The state saw decreases in the percentage of eighth graders scoring below proficient in math, fourth graders who were below proficient in reading, and in the number of 3- and 4-year-olds not attending school.
  • 3rd in the family and community domain. Just 5 percent of children in Utah live in high-poverty areas, which is well below the national average of 14 percent. The teen birth rate has fallen to 18 births per 1,000 females.
  • 19th in health. The percentage of teens abusing drugs and alcohol remained at 5 percent for the third consecutive year. The child and teen death rate also hovers at the national average of 25 deaths per 100,000 children.

Along with critical gains in health, the 2017 Data Book shows that investments in early childhood education are paying off. Utah exceeds the national average for its percentages of fourth graders meeting proficiency in reading, eight graders meeting proficiency in math and high schoolers graduating on time. Utah also saw a decrease in the percentage of children ages 3 and 4 who are not in school, a trend that is likely to continue as positive policies such as SB 101 — which makes it possible to offer scholarships for quality preschool to families living in intergenerational poverty — are implemented. Positive policies such as this will have profound impacts on children’s lives.

Supplementing the National Data Book is Measures of Child Well-Being in Utah, an annual publication from Voices for Utah Children that presents county-level data to local policymakers and planners. Measures of Child Well-Being in Utah also provides information at the state-level on racial and ethnic disparities and it highlights emerging trends. In Utah, child death rates, suicide rates, and chlamydia rates are all on the rise. While the percentage of uninsured kids has been improving, this indicator will be affected by future policy decisions around Medicaid and CHIP.

Measures show that the percent of kids in poverty in Utah has declined slightly but there are differences depending on where you live and if you are a child of color. Statewide, almost 13% of kids live in poverty, around 116,000 children. However, 25% of Latino/a children live below the poverty level and county poverty levels range from a low in Morgan of 5.3% and a high of 31.9% in San Juan County.

Education data in Measures indicates that, once again, more children are enrolled in our schools than the year before. From Fall of 2015 to Fall of 2016 enrollment increased by 11,680 students. And this yearly increase is a common occurrence.

The Utah KIDS COUNT Project is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation whose primary mission is to foster public policies, human-service reforms, and community supports that more effectively meet the needs of today’s vulnerable children and families. By providing policymakers and citizens with benchmarks of child well-being, KIDS COUNT seeks to enrich local, state, and national discussions of ways to secure better futures for all children. It is intended to gauge the seriousness of the problems facing children, and to guide the policy trends and goals on behalf of children. Using these two publications together, KIDS COUNT can measure child outcomes and contribute to public accountability for those outcomes.


For 30 years now, Voices for Utah Children has called on our state, federal and local leaders to put children’s needs first. But the work is not done. The children of 30 years ago now have children of their own. Too many of these children are growing up in poverty, without access to healthcare or quality educational opportunities.

How can you be involved?

Make a tax-deductible donation to Voices for Utah Children—or join our Network with a monthly donation of $20 or more.  Network membership includes complimentary admission to Network events with food, socializing, and opportunity to meet child advocacy experts. And don't forget to join our listserv to stay informed!

We look forward to the future of Voices for Utah Children and we hope you will be a part of our next 30 years.

Special thanks to American Express, our "Making a Difference All Year Long" sponsor. Amex

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The 2017 legislative session was remarkable for focusing more on tax policy than any session since 2007. This came in response to the November 29, 2016 announcement by Our Schools Now of their intention to pursue a campaign to place on the 2018 ballot an initiative to generate $750 million for public education through an increase in Utah’s income tax rate from 5% to 5.875%. In response, the Legislature engaged in a detailed and wide-ranging examination of several tax restructuring options. In that process several important lessons were learned:


The Utah Legislature is unlikely to pass a tax reform package that is more than marginally or perhaps gradually revenue positive. While it appeared that the Senate was willing to support restoring some state revenues to address the current underinvestment in children, the House of Representatives was particularly averse to generating new revenues for the public investments that our state critically needs, despite strong evidence that Utah’s tax burden remains at a multi-decade low. This strengthens the argument for taking the question directly to voters through the initiative process.


Restoring the sales tax on food is not only the most regressive of the options that were considered, it also fails to substantially reduce revenue volatility during recessions. Moreover, we also learned that restoring the sales tax on food while offsetting that with a lower overall sales tax rate involves a $40 million shift of sales tax burden from out-of-state to in-state taxpayers, since 97% of the food sales tax increase would have been paid by Utahns, while out-of-staters would have received 23% of the overall sales tax rate reduction.


The legislative leadership was genuinely concerned about the impact that raising the food sales tax would have on the poor and made a sincere effort to find ways to achieve their goal of broadening the base without burdening low-income Utahns. Since we never saw a final proposal, we can’t evaluate it properly, but it was clear from the evolution of their ideas that House and Senate leaders were sensitive to the concerns of advocates for the poor such as Voices for Utah Children and our partners. They incorporated into their proposals some ideas from the research that we released at our coalition press conference on February 23 at the Capitol.


The Our Schools Now proposal to raise the income tax rate from 5% to 5.875% is the fairest to low-income Utahns of any of the leading tax reform proposals. Only 2% of its new revenues come from the lowest quintile of tax filers, those earning under $25,000, who could easily be shielded with an offsetting EITC. And 58% of the $750 million of new revenues comes from the highest quintile, those earning over $111,000. Indeed, that 58% share is approximately equal to the share of all Utah income earned by the top quintile of Utahns. But what about the cost to middle-income Utahns? Under the proposal, the median household pays about $350 more annually. If that family has two kids in the public schools, then their $350 upfront payment will reap a gain of over $2,000 in new investment in their own children – good luck trying to get a return like that in the stock market!


The Earned Income Tax Credit gained in popularity this year, winning 61 votes on the House floor (vs. 38 in 2014) and gaining Senate committee approval. But legislators appear unconvinced by the evidence presented by the American Enterprise Institute on Interim Day last September that, for low-income kids, investing in their family economic stability through an EITC brings greater educational gains than investing those same dollars in the classroom. Thus, it appears that the EITC’s best chance for approval is as part of a larger income tax reform package. Fortunately, legislative leaders have declared that such a package is already a goal for the 2018 legislative session.


Even though the Tax Review Commission declined to recommend them following months of study, the Legislature remains committed to gradually implementing two business tax reductions: Single Sales Factor corporate income tax apportionment and extending the sales tax exemption for manufacturing inputs to inputs lasting less than three years. While legislation to fully implement those two proposals was not passed, reduced versions applying those changes to more industries did pass, including a creative application of the sales tax exemption as an incentive to switch refineries over to producing cleaner Tier 3 fuels.

Photo Credit: Antoniodiaz | - Taking a test in high school

LUGU Logo 1March 30, 2017 is Love UT Give UT!

It’s a day for Utahns to give to the nonprofits that make Utah special. Every donation to Voices for Utah Children through Love UT Give UT gives Voices a chance to win matching grants and prizes—and gives you a chance to win a car!

And you don't have to wait!  Donate now at

For 30 years now, Voices for Utah Children has called on our state, federal and local leaders to put children’s needs first. But the work is not done. The children of 30 years ago now have children of their own. Too many of these children are growing up in poverty, without access to healthcare or quality educational opportunities.

How can you be involved?

Make a tax-deductible donation to Voices for Utah Children—or join our Network with a monthly donation of $20 or more.  Network membership includes complimentary admission to Network events with food, socializing, and opportunity to meet child advocacy experts. And don't forget to join our listserv to stay informed!

We look forward to the future of Voices for Utah Children and we hope you will be a part of our next 30 years.

Special thanks to American Express for sponsoring our 30th Anniversary Year. Amex

Published in News & Blog