Report: Utah families are strong, but they could be stronger

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5 2013 5:15 p.m. MST

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.

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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.

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