"If we can get the economy right, everything else takes care of itself. It's the rising tide that lifts all boats," said Gov. Gary Herbert to his Park City real estate colleagues in 2011. But it doesn’t, as evidenced by this: “ the percentage of taxpayers who are downwardly mobile increased to 39 percent from 28 percent,” (Utah Foundation, “Climbing Toward the American Dream: A Second Analysis of Economic Mobility in Utah,” Aug. 2, 2013).
Utah’s claim to be one of the friendliest states for business may be right, but it isn’t for the poor. There are 123,000 working poor that can’t afford health care and some of them working two or three jobs to make it in the governor’s economy. The governor and Legislature not only seem to ignore the poor but also often appear to ridicule them by saying if they are going to feed at the public trough, they have to work to pay it back, and be drug-tested.
If many of the lawmakers are in business and property development, then that seems to be their view of the world, not the working poor. When it comes to business and developers, they are portrayed as the answer to everything for Utah.
In 2011, Greg Hughes, the new house leader and real estate developer, sponsored HB445 to relocate the prison, which clearly stated that the purpose was “in order to allow private development” at the current site, but notably missing was the public’s interest. The legislation was quickly adopted, even though past studies had recommended against it because of the $460 million taxpayers’ expense.
On the other hand, after three years of deliberation, the Legislature still is refusing to accept health care for the working poor under the federal Affordable Care Act, saying it can’t trust the federal government. In the meantime, the governor is trying to get the money by having the poor work for it.
The governor’s "lift all boats" theory just doesn’t hold water these days. Nearly 13 percent of Utahns are living in poverty (Utah Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission Annual Report, 2014). Our world has changed. We now have more productivity but stagnant job growth. The link between a growing economy and job growth has been broken, according to MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's book, “Race Against The Machine.” They raise the sobering questions: how are we going to distribute the benefits of this abundant economy; and the harder question, what is a meaningful life going to look like; and where will dignity and self-worth come from in the 21st century if not from a job?
Utah is not immune from the growing inequality where, in America, we are seeing 1 percent of the population doing very well and 99 percent are not. And our Utah leaders, at best, seem to not understand, or worse, seem more concerned with their self-interest when they ignore their duty to work for the public good. Public policy is supposed to express the interest of all citizens consistent with the people’s values. It’s what holds a civil society together.
Unless we elect leaders who have an understanding of the forces affecting our changing world and work for the general welfare of all citizens, we may be relegated to a two-tiered society between the haves and have nots. The stakes are too high to leave it to politicians. It’s up to each of us to make sure our Utah policies reflect the goodness and kindness in all of us.