Salt Lake City Offers Glimpse of Socialism, Mormon-Style
A few blocks from the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, a huge grain elevator rises 178 feet into the sky. It is a towering tribute to an ideology that economists and Mormon church members credit for making Utah the most equal state in America.
The granary looms over Welfare Square, made up of a small supermarket with half a dozen shelves stocked with pantry staples for the needy. With a note from a local bishop, anyone – church member or not – can walk in and fill up on groceries at no charge. There’s also a cheese factory and a secondhand clothing shop. All of this contributes to a powerful private welfare system that distributes tens of millions of dollars in cash and goods a year around the world – the church also sends food and aid to its congregations in Asia and Africa.
About 60% of Utah is Mormon, and the church’s history, doctrine and practice influence the state’s entire culture. Mormons tithe their income, but the rules of giving also create a private welfare system that allows local church leaders to grant cash and goods to members and non-believers in times of emergency, as well as access to goods at Welfare Square. In some cases, a bishop might ask for volunteer work in return – but the grants are not expected to be repaid.
What could be described as a little slice of socialism in the Rocky Mountain west partly explains what has given Utah one of the lowest rates of US economic inequality. Utah also ranks top for upward income mobility. In the new Gilded Age, when inequality has reached decades-high levels, what’s the lesson in Mormonism?
April Young Bennett, a petite, blue-eyed mother of four, is a devout Mormon and a feminist, two belief systems that often clash. She explains that Mormon families like hers are expected to fast for two meals each month, and donate the cost of those meals to the welfare fund.
“I know many people who have used it when they’ve gone through a short-term problem. It might be a divorce. It might be losing their job, something that causes short-term poverty,” she says.
A smart woman with a quick laugh in a Salt Lake cafe also told of how the church paid her rent on a new place for three months, which allowed her to leave an abusive marriage. Over the phone, another man in Utah with three young kids said food from the bishop’s storehouse kept his family going when he lost his construction job. Other church members said the no-strings-attached funds carried them though circumstances that could have spiraled into disaster and poverty. All declined to have their names published for fear of stigma. Their reluctance might reveal something more about the church’s welfare programs: it’s admirable to give; it’s perhaps less admirable to receive.
A notable exception is the former mayor of Salt Lake County, now a first-term congressman, the Democrat Ben McAdams. A Mormon church member, he is open about his family’s financial struggles in the 80s, after the crumbling of his parents’ marriage left them broke. McAdams became a tireless advocate for poverty alleviation programs, and credits socioeconomic equality practices within the church for leveling the playing field.
“We lived paycheck to paycheck,” he told me. There were times the power company turned off the electricity; there were foreclosure notices and stretches when the family had no health insurance. “I remember mom always having to juggle,” he says. In those periods, the family got through with food from Welfare Square and relied on the church to pay overdue utility bills.
The doctrine of Mormon generosity and sharing goes back to the church’s beginnings, when faithful believers fled westward to avoid government persecution. The ideology of self-sufficiency and mistrust of the government runs deep in the Rockies, well beyond the Mormon church. There are hundreds of books and theories about why, but the easiest answer has something to do with the type of people who have chosen to live in this sparse, rugged land, eke out a living and remain here.
In the 19th century, Mormons tested out many experiments with collectivism, while also denying an influence of socialism. Several groups lived in a collective system known as the United Order, where property, goods and profits were communal, an effort to equalize wealth and eliminate poverty. Polygamy was also common in these communities until the church officially outlawed it in 1890.
And therein lies one of the critical flaws with the model of Mormon generosity: while Utah ranks high on equality overall and in terms of social mobility for children, it ranks last in economic equality for women.
Young Bennett advocates for women to be allowed into the ministry and says a critical problem with the church’s temporary assistance programs is the lack of gender equity. Women who may seek the funds after a divorce are frowned upon in a culture that prizes family unity. They are often forced to share personal stories and embarrassing details with the men in charge at local church wards – men who are often friends or relatives of their husbands.
“I think there are a lot of good things about the system, except that it’s only administered by men,” she said. “It’s very gendered in terms of who makes the decisions.”
There is, to put it simply, a lot going on in Utah. The tourism industry has exploded in recent years to help make Utah the fastest-growing state this decade – a population increase of more than 400,000, or over 14%, in a state with just over 3 million people. Besides the bountiful recreation, a 20-minute drive south from downtown Salt Lake reveals the evidence of a tech boom – new buildings and construction sites sprout like a mushroom colony across what locals refer to as Silicon Slopes.
Economists at the University of Utah warn against complacency. Utah does well in national rankings, so people assume inequality isn’t an issue. But there are already some symptoms of slowing progress. After reducing chronic homelessness by more than 90% between 2005 and 2015 with a program that housed people first and asked questions about things like sobriety later, the state cut back on a groundbreaking program and saw an immediate doubling in the number of people sleeping outside.
During his time as mayor, McAdams went undercover for three nights as a homeless person, sleeping on the streets to better understand the challenges people face in finding food, shelter and solutions. It is hard to imagine a mayor of a major city doing this anywhere but Utah, where church doctrine influences political moves.
Professor Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied Mormon volunteerism and charity, has found church members donate more time and money than most, even most religious people. “We have found an unbelievable amount of volunteering. It’s clear they do a lot for the congregation, but they do a lot for society in general,” says Cnaan.
There’s a trend in America now for people with money to distance themselves from the poor, to put up gated communities and shun the homeless. But based on Utah’s example, cities would do well to think of ways to pull together for the common good.
McAdams admits poverty is a difficult issue to understand, but says simple first steps can go a long way toward stabilizing vulnerable people. Some people need a short-term gap filler to avoid disastrous consequences. “I think our system makes it hard for people to lift themselves up,” he says.
Kathleen McLaughlin is a journalist who writes about science, culture, and politics all over the world, including her home state of Montana.
Co-published with The Guardian.