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Social capital ‘superpowers’: A Q&A with Utah Foundation’s Peter Reichard

Written by Derek Monson

September 16, 2022

“Social capital matters tremendously,” says Peter Reichard from the Utah Foundation. “It determines how well we will live, what we can hope for, and how much money the government might try to spend to ameliorate the consequences of society’s failings.” Because of the importance of social capital, the Utah Foundation recently published a social capital index that makes it possible to compare social capital in Utah to other states.

Utah’s score placed it at the top of the index. “The fact that Utah emerged No. 1 in the nation – and decisively so – is something in which Utahns should take pride,” says Reichard. “When it comes to social capital factors, Utah definitely has some superpowers.” Those include attending public meetings, volunteering, attending religious services, neighborhood participation, family formation/structure, and the size of our middle class.

Part of the explanation for these outcomes may be the relative health of Utah’s civic, religious, economic and government institutions. According to Reichard, “the health of those institutions builds social trust,” and that kind of trust is what holds human associations together.

But an area of concern for Utah – due to high levels of in-migration, like many Mountain West states, Reichard notes – is social cohesion. Utah’s advantage in this regard, according to Reichard, is “the nation’s strongest middle class … [and] robust homegrown population, in part because we’re the national leader in our birth rate.” But in Reichard’s view, things like language barriers for immigrants remain a significant hurdle that must be overcome to properly build social cohesion.

Additional challenges exist as well for Utah, says Reichard. One is “a general feeling that parenting is becoming increasingly daunting. We also need to ask ourselves, whether we’re employers, civic leaders or public officials: Are we making it easier for parents to raise the next generation? What would making it easier look like?” Another is “the degree to which technology keeps gobbling up an ever-greater proportion of childhood. … Much of that technology can be unsafe and damaging in various ways. The negative data on mental health among youth during the past decade-plus is stark.” Reichard recommends “a multi-front approach to address this issue.”

Read the full interview between Derek Monson, Sutherland Institute vice president of policy, and Reichard below.

Monson: Why create an index to aggregately measure social capital across a broad list of categories?

Reichard: The index gives you a hard number that allows you to compare Utah to other states, to the nation at large, and to itself over time. The fact that Utah emerged No. 1 in the nation – and decisively so – is something in which Utahns should take pride. But we also ought to mind those factors contributing to that index score, because social capital matters tremendously. It determines how well we will live, what we can hope for, and how much money the government might try to spend to ameliorate the consequences of society’s failings. So we hope the index focuses the public’s attention on social capital.

Monson: Relative to other states, Utah scored particularly well in areas of social capital including social trust, community life, family life, social mobility and focus on future generations. From what you’ve seen in your data and your own observation, is there a particular factor or set of factors unique to Utah or its residents that drive those outcomes?

Reichard: When it comes to social capital factors, Utah definitely has some superpowers. The Beehive State is third in the nation on citizen attendance at public meetings; first in volunteerism; first in religious service attendance; first in neighborhood participation; first on family formation and structure; and first in the size of the middle class. I could go on. It should be noted that these factors are interrelated. They promote each other.

Monson: What role do you think the health (or lack thereof) of Utah’s civic, religious, economic and government institutions plays in the social capital outcomes captured by your index?

Reichard: The health of those institutions builds social trust. As a journalist from a bygone age put it: “It is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest, that holds human associations together.” For negative examples, just look at institutional Washington, the national media or the entertainment industry. Trust in those institutions is low, and that’s a demoralizing force in the U.S. But you have to ask: Do those institutions deserve our trust? If the distrust is justified, then you have to reform the institution. Ignoring the problem or propagandizing the public with the idea that they shouldn’t believe their lying eyes will only compound the distrust. So you can’t just fix social distrust; you have to fix the corruption that is causing it.

Monson: According to the index, Utah is middling in the area of social cohesion and declining in its focus on future generations. What suggestions would you offer as realistic ways for Utah to improve those outcomes and trends?

Reichard: Social cohesion will be an ongoing challenge among the Mountain States because of a high level of in-migration. The West is a magnet, so you have a lot of new faces coming in, both from foreign countries and from within the U.S. Three of our neighboring states, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, have some of the nation’s very lowest levels of social cohesion. In Utah, we do have one big thing going for us: the nation’s strongest middle class. Another strength is the robust homegrown population, in part because we’re the national leader in our birth rate. But as immigrants come in with low English language skills, it’s critical that we get them speaking English quickly so that they and their children can fully participate in our society and its economic benefits. To the extent that English language skills hold our kids back educationally, we’re losing the opportunity to bolster our middle class. Our schools and the families of these kids need to work to prevent that outcome.

Utah’s focus on future generations is relatively high. But one thing we’re watching is the downward trend on our otherwise strong relative recreation investments. The Utah State University Families in Sports Lab has found that participation in youth sports has become expensive. Not surprisingly, youth participation in sports has been dropping off during the past 15 years. Youth sports could offer an opportunity for kids to connect across economic lines and build soft skills like teamwork and grit. That bleeds over into better academic work. We have to find ways to open those opportunities to lower-income kids.

Leaving income aside, there’s a general feeling that parenting is becoming increasingly daunting. We also need to ask ourselves, whether we’re employers, civic leaders or public officials: Are we making it easier for parents to raise the next generation? What would making it easier look like?

Maybe the most disturbing finding in our series is the degree to which technology keeps gobbling up an ever-greater proportion of childhood. Most parents I know struggle with the way that technology is taking over their kids’ lives. Much of that technology can be unsafe and damaging in various ways. The negative data on mental health among youth during the past decade-plus is stark. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s unrelated to the massive invasion of digital media onto the territory of our children’s minds. But an outsider would look at the way we ignore the problem as a society and assume that we just don’t love our kids. We probably need a multi-front approach to address this issue.

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