Census: Economic data paints two different portraits of Utah

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MONTICELLO — In the remote red mesas of this southeastern corner of Utah, Charlie DeLorme counts the jobs by the single digits.

There’s the Latigo wind farm that started operations last March, creating six new full-time positions.

There’s the Desert Rose Inn in Bluff, which added 10 jobs after a luxury expansion.

And there’s Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley, which just added 52 new jobs, including several management positions — an economic boon in this rural, 8,000-square-mile stretch of Utah.

“Every one of these jobs is important to us,” said DeLorme, who has been the economic development coordinator for San Juan County for 10 years.

“I’ve heard elected officials say that we don’t need more minimum tourism industry jobs,” he said. “Well, these jobs do have tremendous value.”

Data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday showed that stark disparities persist between urban and rural Utah, even as the state climbs out of the recession.

The five-year American Community Survey covers 2011 to 2015, encapsulating a large “schmear” of time that includes the end of the recession and the beginning of the recovery, said Pam Perlich, the director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute.

That means data’s not useful for finding sudden turning points in Utah’s economic recovery.

What the data can do is tease out aspects of life in Utah’s most isolated and least populated counties, Perlich said. Many of them have so few residents that they don’t even show up in the Census Bureau’s one- or three-year reports.

“Each one of these counties has a different experience and different characteristics,” Perlich said. “The state average really hides all of these unique stories as to how this is playing out.”

Among other things, the survey shows that rural counties like San Juan, Iron and Piute have poverty rates about double those of Morgan, Tooele and Davis counties.

The median household income reported in Summit County ($91,773), one of the wealthiest counties in Utah, is more than 2 ½ times that of Piute County ($35,980), one of the poorest.

One in 2 residents in Summit County has a bachelor’s degree, compared with just 1 in 8 in Emery County.

In Piute County, 1 in 5 residents and more than 1 in 3 children are living under the poverty line, according to census data.

It’s a different world than the rolling farms of Morgan County, a quiet commuter suburb with the largest percentage of married couple households in the state. Or Davis County, which has the lowest rate of vacant housing units in the state — 3.8 percent — and boasts a poverty rate of just 7 percent.

Many of the somber statistics in rural Utah reflect the boom and bust cycle of the energy and coal industries, said Utah Department of Workforce Services senior economist Lecia Langston, who oversees 10 counties in southwest and central Utah.

“Rural counties had a harder time coming back from the recession, but they don’t tend to grow rapidly anyway,” Langston said.

Some places — like Iron, Sevier and Sanpete counties — are bouncing back, she said.

Others, like Wayne County and Garfield counties, are struggling due to the loss of major employers. Garfield nearly doubled its poverty rate since the 2006-10 survey, according to census data.

Aging residents or large numbers of students can sometimes explain low income and high poverty rates in rural counties, Langston said. In Piute County, for example, the median age is 42.9 years old.

In fact, rural counties are growing older and less populated nationwide as working-age people gravitate toward urban centers. In Utah, rural communities are five years older on average than urban communities, according to the survey.

Brenda Quick, a real estate agent in Price, said she’s concerned that people will continue to flow out to bigger cities.

In Carbon County — long dependent on coal and natural gas — Quick said she’s seeing a high number of foreclosures and short sales. Parents are working multiple jobs, adult children are moving in with their parents, and those parents are moving in with grandparents, according to Quick.

“I think most people feel like we’re on our own in this area,” she said. “We’ve always supported ourselves, and we’ve had our ups and downs. … But we don’t have a lot of support.”

Across Utah as a whole, fertility and marriage rates continued to drop and immigration continued to shift from Latin America to Asia, according to census data.

Although the economy has started to pick up in the past couple years, “the severity of the Great Recession and its imprint continues in this data,” Perlich said.

The numbers even show the effects of the recession in Utah’s wealthier counties. Morgan, Wasatch and Davis counties all saw jumps in their poverty rates in the survey compared with the 2006-10 survey.

As for LeDorme, working to bring more companies to San Juan County is personal as well as professional. He has seven daughters, five of whom have moved out of the county for job opportunities elsewhere.

“You gotta hope that you can build jobs every day so that I can get five more of my seven daughters back home,” he said.

“We continue to fight,” LeDorme added. “We don’t give up despite the doom and gloom.”

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