Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Air quality, health and safety, education and availability of jobs contribute to the quality of life — perhaps some more than others — but Utahns are putting all four at the top of the list this year.
"What's out there are jobs that are paying $8 to $10 per hour, and it's really hard to pay bills and pay rent with what's being offered," said Joan DeLuca, who has been searching for a customer service/management job for about the past two months.
Low wages don't cut it, DeLuca said, when there are medical issues to attend to, making for a "difficult life."
In its second biennial Utah Quality of Life Index, the Utah Foundation reports that Utahns are slightly more satisfied with life than they were in 2011, exactly one point greater, projecting 78.2 out of a possible 100 points.
The score is an average of telephone responses to questions about 20 aspects of life, ranging from the availability of quality health care services, to how much people support and help each other, to the significance of air quality, and the quality of public schools.
Of the 20 factors, spiritual and religious activities and groups had the highest reported quality, while the availability of good jobs had the lowest reported quality. Safety and security was the most important aspect of life, and a desire for people to have shared views and values was the least important, according to the neutral public policy research foundation's analysis of the report.
"It provides a good foundation to see what are the top things that Utahns think should be taken care of by policymakers and other individuals in order to affect our quality of life in a positive way," said Shawn Teigen, senior research analyst for the Utah Foundation.
Teigen said the report could find potential trends that state leaders could "nip in the bud" before they get out of hand.
Although the state's quality of life rating improved, several of the issues most important to Utahns were viewed as having below average performance. For example, while the rating of the availability of good jobs increased by 9 percent in this year's index, it still falls well below average.
Aaron Cleapor, a journeyman sheet metal worker, spends a good chunk of his day at the state's Department of Workforce Services refining his resume and applying for jobs. He's been unemployed for about three months after walking away from a job because of a situation regarding his personal safety.
"I took it for granted," said Cleapor, 36. "It seemed like I could up and walk away at any time, that it wouldn't be so hard to get another job."
He expects the market to improve at some point, but for now, the single dad is teetering on the possibility of living on the street.
"I've cut back on everything. I'm living dime to dime, not paycheck to paycheck," Cleapor said, adding that the prospects are "almost depressing."
"People who do have a good job really need to take a step back and appreciate it," he said. "It's not just a job you don't have. It's a way of life and your livelihood."
Utah's unemployment rate decreased by about 2 percent since the previous quality of life survey in 2011, as is expected with the country coming out of a recession. But Teigen said the factor still has a relatively low quality ranking.
Air quality was the only issue in the report to decrease significantly in two years, dropping 5 percent since Utahns were last surveyed.
However, last winter was also one of the more difficult as far as air quality goes, with more than 40 days of inversion, according to Ted Wilson, former Salt Lake City mayor and executive director of the Utah Clean Air partnership.
"If we cut industry altogether, it only eliminates 11 percent of our air pollution," Wilson told a group gathered Tuesday for a lunch discussion about quality of life issues. "It's us. We're driving cars. We're using propellants and aerosol cans for hairspray and other products. We're doing a lot of things we can control."
To fix air quality issues in Utah, Utahns need "to care" and to have a plan and stick to it, he said.
Riding to work using the Utah Transit Authority's TRAX system, Wilson said, "is not only for better air, but it has outstanding people-watching."
Wilson said it takes him about 10 minutes longer to ride his bike to the nearest TRAX station and commute by rail than it takes to get to work by vehicle.
"Our stake is deep. It is personal. It is you and me and the family. It is our community. It's our culture at stake," he said.
The Utah Foundation report includes jobs and air quality in its six "action items," as they were ranked in high importance, but quality is lower than expected. Others action items include public education, acceptances of one another's differences, and water quality.
"Education is the building block for most of these quality indicators," said Richard Kendell, former teacher and state commissioner of higher education and current interim president at Southern Utah University.
Kendell said education issues, including illiteracy in the state, can be remedied.
"We have to start earlier with many children," he said Tuesday. "Getting young people off to a good start makes the whole system work better."
Five factors were rated above average in both importance and quality, making them stand out as Utah successes. According to the report, those factors include higher education, availability of quality health care, level of support and help provided by people, good parks and recreation areas, and safety and security from crime.
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