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Utah's little secret: Inclusion a key to economic growth

Published: Monday, May 27 2013 1:40 p.m. MDT

Tiara, 6, of Salt Lake City helps her mother get groceries at the Bishops' Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Last week Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stood and spoke — again — about the strength of Utah's economy following a sixth-straight No. 1 ranking for the state's economy by the The American Legislative Exchange Council.

It's become a regular task for the governor, highlighting Utah's pro-business tax rates, the size of Utah's government workforce (small), a doubling in the volume of its exports, supporting 66,000 jobs; and an unemployment rate that last month stood at 4.7 percent of the workforce, nearly three full percentage points below the 7.5 percent national unemployment rate.

Now comes another key to Utah's success: the ability to be inclusive despite changing demographics. Inclusion has emerged as an economic indicator, according to researchers measuring the impact of change on communities.

The Salt Lake metropolitan area, consisting of Tooele, Salt Lake and Summit counties, is one of four metropolitan areas with high levels of economic growth and the ability to be inclusive across minority and demographic groups.

Areas with high levels of immigration typically have greater income disparity, researchers found, and the greater the wage gap, the less likely a region is to grow. But the Salt Lake area is among communities reaching across religious, social, racial and economic lines to generate shared knowledge and create growth across sectors.

"We tried to ask the question, 'Where are the places in the U.S. where over the last 30 years there's been an ability to achieve sustainable economic growth and also an ability to, in that process, lift all boats?'" Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, said.

"It turns out that the Salt Lake metropolitan area is one of those places that's been able to do that - to do more inclusive growth."

Minorities made up only a fraction of Utah's population when Theresa Martinez first moved to Utah more than 20 years ago. But now minorities comprise about one-fifth of the state's population and a quarter of Salt Lake City's population, according to the 2010 Census.

Minority children make up the majority of students in 15 of Salt Lake City's 27 elementary schools. And nine of those schools have minority populations of 80 percent or higher, pointing to a diverse future.

Martinez said in her two decades here she has seen community, business and religious leaders work together to confront the challenges that come with a rapid shift in demographics, including income disparity and segregation.

"There are such visionaries in the community who really value diversity," Martinez, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, said.

She serves on the boards of Zions Bank, Salt Lake Legal Defenders and the Inclusion Center for Community and Justice, researching race and class in society, among other areas.

In Salt Lake City, researchers measured economic growth by the change in the number of jobs available and how much income people made at those jobs. Inclusion was measured by the change in the ratio of households with incomes in the 80th percentile compared to those at the 20th percentile, and a change in the number of people in poverty.

During the past 30 years, the Salt Lake metropolitan area saw 52.8 percent fewer individuals living below the poverty line, compared to 33.7 fewer nationwide, according to the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California, directed by Pastor. Research also showed a 16.5 percent increase in earnings in Salt Lake, versus 13 percent nationally.

The same researchers found a 125.7 percent increase in employment in Utah, while the rest of the country averaged 70.2 percent.

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