May 05, 2021

Utah Economic Benchmarking Project 2021: Utah vs Arizona

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 https://fb.watch/5jZBVxpKOY/ . 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.  

med house incomea

 LFPR sex

Ut Mn hrly wage plus

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

pov rates

child poverty rates

adult pov race

child pov race

single parent families

single fam race
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. 

Ut Mn educ attainment 

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. 

HS grad rates

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.

higher ed race ethn grp

higher ed race ethn grpa

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. 

min wage

pov level wagesa

gender wage gap

kindergarten

 

Summary of Key Findings

 Ut Mn big chart 1 econ oppty

 

Ut Mn big chart 2 std of liv 

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.

 

MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE BENCHMARKING PROJECT:

KUTV-2:  https://kutv.com/news/local/utah-vs-arizona-new-report-shows-utah-leads-neighbor-in-most-economic-categories

Facebook Live Event discussing the report overall: https://fb.watch/68E_JarLMT/

Facebook Live Event focusing on women in higher education, the gender pay gap, and income equality: https://fb.watch/68FoEVvGwY/