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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
FILE — Pedestrians, cars and trains bustle along Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — When national indexes measure prosperity, they focus on factors like the economy, or income and employment. They often miss an important part of American well-being: family life.

The Family Prosperity Index fills that gap as it examines both economic and social factors when measuring prosperity. As the new 2018 report explains, "strong families are the foundation of healthy communities, upward economic mobility and a robust civil society."

"The purpose of the Family Prosperity Initiative is to show how families impact the economy and how the economy impacts families," said J. Scott Moody, co-author of the report and co-director of the Family Prosperity Initiative with his wife, Wendy P. Warcholik. "Wendy and I both trained as economists and are familiar with all the indexes out there. We noticed what was missing was an index that takes seriously both the economic side and the social side, because we do know those factors intertwine."

Their index considers aspects of family life from marriage and divorce to sexually transmitted disease rates, infant mortality, religiosity, education and culture. In all, it counts 50 social and money factors to rank each state, slotted under umbrella headings of economics, demographics, family self-sufficiency, family structure, family culture and family health.

Utah has consistently ranked first in the comparison and 2018 is no different; New Mexico ranked last. Utah was first in all categories but economics, bested there by Colorado, which was sixth overall. Other top-ranked states were Idaho, South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota, while West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Rhode Island joined New Mexico at the bottom.

States can learn from each others' strengths and weaknesses, but not counting social aspects alongside purely economic factors allows solutions to become "siloed," Moody said, sometimes obscuring what works best.

And the interplay between family and economic stability are well known in research, said W. Bradford Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.

"When there are more married people in a state and/or more kids being raised in married-parent households in a state, we have seen higher levels of per capita economic growth in that state. We've seen higher median family income, not surprisingly. We've seen less child poverty at a state level," Wilcox said. "These associations persist, even controlling for population demographics, the levels of education in the state and race and ethnicity patterns in the state."

"There's a robust association between what's happening in families and what's happening to some key economic trends in a state," he added.

A changing society

The new index finds a "growing gap" of prosperity between states, with New Mexico's score just 45 percent of Utah's, at 3.35 versus 7.37 out of 10 across all measures.

The report notes widespread deterioration, including increased infant mortality in 21 states, stalling what had been progress, and a "dramatic rise" in drug-affected babies. Several sexually transmitted disease have surged: Gonorrhea is up 13 percent, chlamydia up 97 percent and syphilis up 145 percent, due at least in part to increased drug use.

Drug overdoses have killed people in what should be their prime, while several states now experience what's called "demographic winter," with more deaths than births and high out-migration. That's been true in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan and Wisconsin, each of which has also seen decreased marriage rates, comparatively low levels of entrepreneurship and low charity rates. Background material on the index says "these issues contribute to what we call the 'dynamics of despair.'"

The opioid crisis shows how family life and economics interact. Drugs don't just hurt their user, but incur societal costs, said Moody. The birth of a newborn whose mom used drugs during pregnancy is typically more expensive than the birth of a healthy child. That cost may be borne by taxpayer-funded programs like Medicaid.

The index finds what Moody calls a "breakdown of the family in general," reflected in a rise in cohabitation and a decline in religiosity, he said. He said the fact that 40 percent of births recently are to unwed parents indicates "people in essence have given up on marriage."

Moody emphasizes, though, that trends can be reversed. "If we can develop and show how important these relationships are, policymakers will reverse course on policies that facilitate the breakdown of the family."

For example, he said, policies like divorce on demand and welfare programs that penalize married couples and encourage cohabiting or single-parent homes, are both less stable than married families. Still, some changes Moody finds problematic are outside the purview of policy, including decline in religiosity, he added.

Slow deterioration

Wilcox said that generally, when people are more integrated into their families and religious and social institutions, they are more likely to flourish socially, emotionally and physically. But it gets complicated. For example, Wilcox said, "religiosity in an individual level is associated with stronger families in general, but religious (participation) is often higher in places were family is fairly fragile, like Mississippi. So not every indicator in a report like this is going to be perfectly correlated."

Utah fares comparatively well both economically and socially. Moody uses the fact that Utah has the youngest population of any state to help explain how social and economic factors weave together. Utah's known for entrepreneurs in large part because it is a "young" state and "entrepreneurship is a young person's game." His home state, New Hampshire, has an older population and entrepreneurial innovation lags. "There's direct correlation to the age of the population. It shows a connection that people don't think about."

That Utah has been the best in each Family Prosperity Index doesn't mean the Beehive State has figured everything out, though. According to the index, Utah has actually lost some ground. It has simply "gotten worse at a slower rate than the rest of the country," said Moody. "Unfortunately, a lot of these variables are moving in the wrong direction."

Most of the "negative" changes in Utah are happening in Utah's most populous county, Salt Lake, according to Moody.

Some good news

Wilcox offers caveats to the finding that family prosperity nationwide is weakening and notes that not all trends are bad. "We haven't seen a big increase in single parenthood, for instance, since 1990." And the upper-third of society has not seen its stability erode. Downward shifts in stability and marriage have been "modest," he said. Besides that, the share of children born outside of marriage has declined since the recession.

Family life has become more interconnected for children growing up in intact families. Dads who live with their kids are much more engaged with them than fathers were in the 1970s. Instead of golfing on Saturday, dads are more likely to be coaching their kids' soccer teams or participating in family activities.

Besides annual state comparisons, Moody and Warcholik plan to "take a deep dive" into each state. So far, it has done so with Utah, Maine, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and West Virginia, publishing individual reports. This year it will analyze Colorado, Indiana and North Carolina.

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"We hope that by taking a state-by-state approach, we can customize solutions to what's going on at ground level and begin to move the needle," Moody said.

The index has been funded by the American Conservative Union Foundation and has ties to the Sutherland Institute. Moody said the foundation grant ends in June and they are moving to a more politically neutral funding base, but he added the report on the interaction between families and economics has always been firmly grounded in solid academic research.