A tale of 2 Utahs: Group hopes lawmakers take steps to tackle urban, rural divide

A tale of 2 Utahs: Group hopes lawmakers take steps to tackle urban, rural divide

(Scott G Winterton, KSL File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Wasatch Front economy is booming, and Utah as a whole enjoys one of the lowest jobless rates in the nation.

That is one snapshot of the state.

The other view, that of rural Utah, is a starkly different profile with some counties experiencing a stagnant economy, high poverty rates and job losses.

A report released Thursday seeks to bring awareness to the urban-rural divide in Utah and keep it in the conversation of lawmakers as they prepare to convene a 45-day legislative session later this month.

"What we wanted to do is make sure it stays on everybody's radar, especially state lawmakers," said Lauren Simpson, policy director with ABU Education Fund.

"We want to make sure it remains a vital part of the conversation."

The ABU Education Fund, a sister organization to Alliance for a Better Utah — a progressive watchdog organization — released Reaching Across the Urban-Rural Divide, providing a snapshot of 16 rural Utah counties.

The report examines poverty rates, median income and unemployment rates, and provides a glimpse of these counties when it comes to education, health care and unique county circumstances.

Daggett County, for example, has a high median income of $85,000 and a poverty rate lower than the state as a whole, but it is struggling to haul in revenue with the forced closure of its county jail.

That reality is in sharp contrast to the state of Utah, where lawmakers are considering what to do with a hefty state revenue surplus of $1.3 billion.

Simpson said wise policymakers will be careful to make decisions that consider the state as a whole, not just one economic profile.

"We need to make policies that benefit everyone in the state, not just those who live along the I-15 corridor," she said.

Among the report's snapshot of facts:

  • Emery County faced job losses of 18.3 percent between 2010 and 2016.
  • A University of Utah Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study found economic growth of the southwest region bypassed Garfield County, and its population grew more slowly than any other county in the region.
  • Kane County has the highest percentage in Utah of men age 65 and older who report a serious disability — at 58 percent.
  • Piute County has a poverty rate of 16.7 percent, the second highest in the state, and lags behind only San Juan County, which sits at 25.9 percent. Utah's poverty rate is 9.7 percent.

Simpson said it is important to note that living in rural Utah has its perks and is a choice that people make because of benefits that transcend dollars.

"The report is not just about the problems, but about the opportunities," she said.

"There is a reason people in Garfield are not picking up and moving to Orem. There is a reason they like living where they live. And those kind of soft advantages are sometimes intangible and hard to capture in the hard data about those counties."

The report builds on current initiatives to bridge the economic gap that separates rural Utah from its urban counterparts.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is leading a multipronged effort to grow 25,000 new jobs in 25 of Utah's 29 counties outside the Wasatch Front by the end of 2020.

Former Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter said the county implemented a number of best practices outlined in Herbert's initiative and is seeing some results.

Potter, whose term ended last year after he did not seek re-election, said a manufacturing company and an alternative energy company plan to break ground on facilities this year, bringing new jobs with them.

"We still have our issues, but we have made headway," he said. "We have some good things happening."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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