Low wages, little savings among many Utah families

Source: The Spectrum

By many measures, Utah maintains the nation’s healthiest economy, with unemployment below the national average, some of the fastest job growth in the U.S. and a reputation for both hard-working employees and high rates of entrepreneurs.

But like the rest of the U.S., the state still has large numbers of families stuck struggling in low-wage jobs, with little savings and few prospects for a more stable financial future, according to a new report from the nonprofit advocacy group Prosperity Now.

In its annual scorecard on the prosperity of Americans, the group measures 37.2 percent of Utah households as being liquid asset poor, meaning they have little money saved up and could fall into poverty after just three months if they lose a job or suffer another significant income loss.

“It’s clear that far too many Utahns are stuck in economic limbo. They may be getting by, but they aren’t getting ahead,” said Andrea Levere, president of Prosperity Now.

The report shows 28.7 percent of state households having failed to set aside any savings for emergencies in the past year, and 21.1 percent of households experienced income volatility from month to month, often from irregular job schedules and lack of steady income.

Nearly a quarter of Utah jobs — 23.9 percent — are in low-wage occupations.

In addition, households of color face greater obstacles. On average, the state’s minority population is twice as likely to live below the poverty line as their white counterparts, and are much less likely to own a home or other assets that help long-term financial stability. Less than half of minority households — 48.7 percent — own homes, compared to 72.7 percent of white, non-Hispanic households, according to the report.

Despite those issues, the state still ranked 4th overall among the 50 states compared in the report, an increase from an 8th-place ranking last year.

The state received an “A” for financial assets and income, thanks primarily to having the highest state rate of households with savings accounts — 88.1 percent — and the lowest rate of income inequality among households, with the richest households making 3.8 times the incomes of the lowest income households, compared to a national average of richer households making 4.9 times what their lower-income peers make.

By many traditional measures, Utah’s economy is humming, especially compared to most other states.

The state’s unemployment rate went up two-tenths of a percentage point in June, to 3.4 percent, according to the Department of Workforce Services, but it remained a full percentage point below the national average.

In addition, the state is adding jobs at the fastest rate in the country, with 49,200 new positions reported over the past 12 months, a 3.4 percent increase. Eight of 10 private industry groups measured reported net job increases.

“Utah’s economy remains on solid footing,” said Carrie Mayne, chief economist at the DWS, in her assessment of the monthly figures.

“While the unemployment rate showed a slight uptick, the expansionary trend in jobs means today’s job seeker will likely become tomorrow’s job holder,” she said.

The state also received an “A” for education finances, mostly because of relatively low average college graduate debt — $18,873 — and a low rate of college graduates with debt — 41 percent.

But the state also ranks near the bottom in a number of key measures, especially on healthcare and health insurance, with some of the nation’s worst uninsured rates for children and minorities and among the lowest percent of jobs that offer health insurance — just 40.7 percent of Utah employers offer insurance, compared to a 45.7 percent national average.

The state also shows some of the largest discrepancies in the country between races, with minority households struggling to enjoy the prosperity of their white household peers.

The report also dings Utah for not allocating enough funding to microenterprise development and to workforce development programs.

“This report highlights some bright spots in our state,” said Josh Kanter, president of the Salt Lake City-based think tank Alliance for a Better Utah. “But those bright spots don’t tell the full story. We need to keep working to create a broad-based economy that allows Utah families to not only get by but to prosper.”

The full 2017 Prosperity Now scorecard is available online at scorecard.prosperitynow.org.

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