Utah is last in the nation for the amount of federal COVID-19 funding that has flowed into the state so far, a recent per-capita analysis shows.
And that’s a sign of good things, economists and officials argue, saying it points to the state’s relative economic resiliency during a pandemic that has taken a far greater toll in other areas of the country.
“We rank low in terms of federal funds in response to the pandemic because we rank high on our economy,” said Phil Dean, a research fellow with the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
“If you compare us at a 2.9% unemployment,” he said, “to a New York that’s almost three times our unemployment rate, that means we get fewer resources from the federal government because many of the resources are tied to economic conditions, and we’re doing very well.”
As of April 28, the federal government has directed more than $19.1 billion in coronavirus funding toward Utah — which works out to about $5,959 per person, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that advocates on national fiscal issues.
That’s the lowest amount received by any state on a per capita basis, according to the group. It found the District of Columbia made out the best, with $13,347 of federal funding per person. After Utah, North Carolina has received the next fewest dollars, with about $6,225 of coronavirus aid per capita.
As the nation reeled from the pandemic, the federal government put money directly into people’s pockets with stimulus payments and boosted unemployment assistance to help workers whose livelihoods were impacted by the virus. There were loans for small businesses and money for grade schools and universities, struggling renters and cash-strapped governments that were seeing tax revenues plummet.
The Peterson Foundation reports that Utah’s relatively low allocation boils down to two types of federal aid: unemployment relief and educational spending. Utah received the second-least in both of those categories on a per-person basis.
The state’s unemployment rate in March stood at 2.9%, less than half the U.S. average of 6% and tying with Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont for the nation’s lowest rate. And even with the pandemic shutdowns and slowed travel, Utah closed out 2020 with a light jobs gain over the prior year.
That economic fortitude dampened the amount of federal unemployment aid that flowed into Utah, according to Dean, who worked in the Utah Governor’s Office of Management and Budget during former Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration.
Utah’s comparative prosperity also affected school funding, since much of that aid was divided up based in part on child poverty levels.
“It’s certainly not that we don’t have challenges,” Dean said. “But I wouldn’t trade our situation for some of these states that might have three, four times the rate of child poverty that we have and got more federal money.”
Utah’s younger-than-average population also probably drove down its funding allocation, he said, since school-age children aren’t part of the workforce and wouldn’t be eligible for unemployment assistance or stimulus payments.
And the state’s youthful demographics likely blunted some of the health impacts of COVID-19 in Utah, since older individuals who contract the disease are more at risk for hospitalization and death, he added.
Like Dean, legislative leaders see Utah’s low ranking in terms of federal assistance as evidence of the state’s strengths.
“Because federal COVID-19 aid was primarily allocated based on factors like unemployment, poverty, and adverse health outcomes, we anticipated receiving less money than other states,” Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in a statement.
“We celebrate the fact that Utah has more people working, fewer people in poverty, and a healthier population than most every other state in the country,” he said, “and as we appropriate the money that we do receive we try to take the long view to ensure that this remains true for years to come.”
Senate President Stuart Adams said Utah leaders have spent decades preparing for the type of economic turmoil that the pandemic introduced and had the flexibility to use state reserves and federal aid for people who needed it most.
“We were also able to reduce taxes, increase funding for education, infrastructure and economic development projects, all during the pandemic,” the Layton Republican said in a statement. “Utah is in a fortunate position. Our thoughtful approach to COVID-19 has allowed us to use federal stimulus to prudently fund items that will have a generational impact.”
Dean also credits state leaders with setting Utah up for a strong recovery from the pandemic.
“We intentionally focused on lives and livelihoods and recognized that both were important,” he said. “And in my view, state leaders worked the best that they could to balance both of those instead of saying one completely at the expense of another.”