Editor’s note: This week Natalie Gochnour delivered the keynote address at the League of Women Voters’ State of the Community Luncheon. What follows is a brief synopsis of her remarks.
Jack Gallivan, the former publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune, once challenged community leaders with this statement:
“Our task is to make all of Utah as beautiful in man-made additions as it is in God-given wonders; beautiful in the maintenance of the good life; beautiful in social equality and justice; beautiful in the brotherhood of mankind.”
We live in a great place that can become even greater. Greatness starts by tearing down the invisible walls that separate our community and contribute to inequality, unequal opportunity and human hardship.
There are many telling statistics about human hardship in Utah. Perhaps the most telling indicator is the variation in life expectancy between neighborhoods with different socioeconomic characteristics. The life expectancy at birth today in the Foothill neighborhood of Salt Lake County is 84.7. Six miles away, in the Glendale neighborhood, the life expectancy is nearly 10 years less.
Another example is child poverty. The Utah Department of Workforce Services reports the number of Utah children living in poverty could fill approximately 1,600 school buses.
Yet another example is high school graduation rates, which in Utah range from 68 percent in Ogden to 98 percent in the Park City area.
Finally, in the most recent jobs report, the economies in seven rural counties contracted.
There are also many great things happening in Utah — it’s the best state for business; it’s the fastest-growing state; it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country; it has stellar fiscal responsibility; it does noble things for refugees, and so on. Let’s be clear … we live in prosperous times.
And it’s precisely because we are doing so well that I want to do more. I wouldn’t be a woman “worth my salt” if I didn’t have a few ideas!
First, tear down the metaphorical walls that separate us. Fences don’t make good neighbors; people do.
Second, I don’t think we should segregate rich and poor people into enclaves. It just creates bigger pools of hopelessness. It’s better to blend human experience together and learn from one another. We should think less about property values and keeping up with the Joneses and more about human beings.
Third, we devote too many resources to help with the effects of poverty too late in the game. We need to intervene early. That’s why I find investment in high-quality prekindergarten programs so appealing.
Fourth, let’s quit fighting about education and start doing something. I would start by fixing educational governance. I think the governor of this state should be entrusted with more power to improve public education.
And finally, the electoral and political walls in this state are too high. It’s dangerous when power protects itself. I support the formation of an independent redistricting commission to help Utah draw electoral district lines. Such a move would help lower the walls of partisanship in this state and do much to enliven the marketplace of ideas.
H. David Burton, the former presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, summed up my feelings about how to approach challenges and break down walls in this community. Upon receiving the Giant in Our City Award from the Salt Lake Chamber, Burton said this:
“The real and deep sense of community we enjoy in this city continually warms the cockles of my heart. We can find common ground. We can help each other. We can ‘drive on’ together. No matter our differences, we can reach across them and build our city. Together we can continue to make this a great place, a beautiful place, a caring place … a place of mutual respect … all of us hand in hand, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, coming together to do good things, to do hard things, and to do them in a way that blesses this community and all its residents and institutions.”
May we follow his lead.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.