Commentary: Utah needs to reach across its urban-rural divide

This article originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune.

In Utah, it pays to be part of the crowd. The state is the ninth most urbanized in the nation, with 90 percent of the people packed together on just 1 percent of the land — mostly along the Wasatch Front.

And along the Wasatch Front, business is booming. According to the Utah Economic Council’s 2019 Economic Report to the Governor, unemployment is at a 10-year low and our state boasts the highest rate of job growth in the nation — particularly among the high-tech companies of the Silicon Slopes.

But for the 10 percent of Utahns who live in our state’s 16 rural counties, the boom looks more like a bust. According to Alliance for a Better Utah Education Fund’s new report, “Reaching Across the Urban-Rural Divide,” rural counties share some traits they would rather leave behind them. They have the highest poverty rates, the highest unemployment rates, the lowest incomes and the lowest percentages of college graduates.

The urban-rural divide has become a key issue for our state, as “politically, economically, and even socially, the differences between these two groups of communities continues to widen,” according to the State of Utah’s Rural Planning Group.

ABU Education Fund’s report provides a data-driven “snapshot” of each of Utah’s 16 rural counties, and every picture tells a story. A close-up of Carbon County reveals an opioid overdose rate that’s triple the state average. A time-lapse view of Grand County shows sharp spikes in unemployment when the tourist season ends. San Juan County’s image is dark with poverty, at a rate more than 2 ½ times the state average.

Rural families lack access to health care in their own communities; they experience cycles of poverty that span generations; they have been ranked at highest risk for HIV and Hepatitis C; they refer to their children, who leave to find jobs in the cities, as their “greatest export.”

Yes, the governor’s “25K Jobs by 2020” initiative for rural Utah is providing a push in the right direction. But the initiative covers 25 of Utah’s 29 counties, rather than focusing on the 16 designated as rural. And as the Utah Economic Council’s report noted, “While the larger rural counties naturally have led the way in creating the jobs, key shoulder counties such as Wasatch have outperformed, contributing more than their relative share [in jobs created], mainly as the result of spillover from the booming neighboring urban counties.”

Solutions to rural Utah’s economic problems will likely include broadening the mix of jobs available, making them less vulnerable to the feast-and-famine cycles of an extraction-based economy or the seasonal ups and downs of an economy based too heavily on tourism.

One thing is certain, though. Rural Utah’s economic problems must be solved by those who are most qualified, and most invested in the outcome — the rural communities themselves.

Ideally, they will have help from urban allies willing to reach across the divide. Ideally, these urban allies will remember, when they hear business and political leaders singing the (justified) praises of Utah’s strong economy, that over 200,000 of their rural neighbors are not yet sharing in the wealth.

This article originally appeared in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Doris Schmidt, Kamas, was a journalism professor at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts for 17 years before retiring and moving to Utah several years ago. She now serves as a volunteer with Alliance for a Better Utah.

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