Utah is in good shape in many ways. The reality is that if we can help even one family that is in poverty, one family breaking up unnecessarily, it would be better for us all. —Bill Duncan, director of Sutherland's Center for Family and Society

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is a place where a lot of people get married, but it is also a place where a fair number of people get divorced.

The state has a higher-than-average divorce rate compared to the national average, according to a new report from the Sutherland Institute, a conservative public policy think tank based in Salt Lake City.

The 3.7 per 1,000 population divorces in Utah could, however, be a factor of unusually high marriage rates in the state, as well as low cohabitation rates and a younger population. But Bill Duncan, director of Sutherland's Center for Family and Society, said that "even in a state with a reasonably good family culture, avoiding the unnecessary breakdown of even one family is important."

"Divorce impacts families, children and society," he said. "The numbers reflect instability for children."

Nationally, the divorce rate is 3.4 per 1,000 population, according to the report. Of the 45 states that report divorce rates, Utah ranks 25th.

Sutherland developed the Index of Key Family Indicators using various vital statistics from state and national databases to conceptually track the health of families over the course of the future. The report, a first of its kind, is a compilation of abortion, divorce, marriage, cohabitation, unwed birth, family size and child poverty rates, and aims to provide policymakers and citizens with a baseline by which to identify strengths and weaknesses and to focus efforts for improvement.

The idea is to inform public policy to improve the overall well-being of Utah families, which Sutherland asserts is fundamental to society.

"Our constitutional republic relies on qualities of character, virtues that are primarily developed in the home," the report states. "Things like public-spiritedness, honesty, the ability to make sacrifices for a good end, even patriotism must exist among a citizenry if it is to thrive and survive."

"In a marriage and a family that is intact and strong, they tend to pass those standards to future generations," Duncan said. "When we do that successfully in families, there isn't much need for government to step in and do it for us."

Duncan said Utah has a good reputation for being a strong family state. Aside from the slightly higher divorce rates, Utah maintains low abortion, cohabitation and unwed birth rates, as well as low child poverty rates, according to the report.

Approximately 1.3 percent of total households in the state contain cohabitating couples, whereas 2.4 percent of homes are made up that way nationally. Utah's percentage is the lowest in the country.

Also lowest is the fact that 19.4 percent of all births are to unwed mothers, which is less than half of the national average of 41 percent. Utah also boasts the nation's lowest abortion rate, with only two counties, Salt Lake and Summit, reaching triple digits. Per 1,000 live births, the state performs an average of 66 abortions, whereas the country sits at around an average of 234 abortions annually.

"Utah is in good shape in many ways," Duncan said. "The reality is that if we can help even one family that is in poverty, one family breaking up unnecessarily, it would be better for us all."

The marriage rate in the state is almost two points higher than the nation's average of 6.8 per 1,000 population, which puts the Beehive State seventh in the nation. Duncan said the rate is good, but more could be done to help people stay married.

More, he said, could also be learned about what drives families to break up, whether poverty is a factor or the result. Child poverty rates in Utah are almost less than 10 points lower than the national average of 21.6 percent, but it remains a problem, as the state ranks 11th lowest in the nation, according to the report.

Recent legislative efforts have aimed to provide opportunities for people who are considering divorce to have more time to reconcile, and also to ensure that some of the economic and moral unfairness currently associated with divorce are ameliorated. Sutherland believes those efforts should continue and the report is designed to illustrate the need for such action.

The organization is open to suggestions on other aspects of society that could be measured, but really wants to start the discussion on what more can be done to strengthen families and drive positive changes.

Utah County was ranked by Sutherland to have the highest and most positive key family indicators of all the state. It is followed by Morgan, Cache, Sanpete, Davis and Wasatch counties, with Grand, Weber and Carbon rounding off the bottom of the 29 counties in the state for the measure of family life.

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Duncan, who lives in Lehi, said he was not surprised, as Utah County is typically more religious and "people who are faithful church attenders tend to typically value family life." He appreciates the strong culture of marriage where he lives, and said that people there "think it is good to be married, that it is the norm, that it is the right way to structure your life."

The area, he said, also provides an ideal environment for his small children, all of which he believes is worth protecting.

"All of us, whether intimately or not, are part of families," Duncan said. "Even in very fractured situations, we're born because we have parents. Strong families are in Utah's best interest."

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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