America has long been hailed as a land of endless possibility, a place where anyone with talent and a drive to succeed could reach new heights.
This American Dream has shaped Utah into the state it is today. From the pioneers of the 1800s to modern leaders, generations of Utahns’ motivation and work ethic has pushed them to reach for the stars.
But in the grip of a pandemic and global recession, this vision of success seems to be slipping away.
With the economy mired in a recession and 67,000 Utahns unemployed, the American Dream appears more a mirage than reality. COVID-19 has exposed deep flaws within Utah’s job market, disproportionately affecting low-income Utahns and their communities.
Faced with these growing disparities, it is clear that change is needed. To ensure Utah once again becomes a land of opportunity for all, it is vital that the economic recovery of low-income families is made a priority.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on low-income Utahns. Not only are the working poor more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, they are also more likely to suffer economically because of it. An April 21, 2020, study by the Pew Research Center found that over half of low-income workers have experienced a job or wage loss as a result of the pandemic. Additionally, data from the Brookings Institute shows that half the rise in poverty seen as a result of COVID-19 could be permanent, perpetuating poverty for generations.
Although Utah’s economy has fared somewhat better than the national average, it has not been spared. In September 2019, Utah’s unemployment rate was 2.7%. Conversely, the September 2020 unemployment rate has nearly doubled to 5.0%. As the pandemic drags on, low-income families are left without a safety net: mired in economic disaster with little hope of escaping.
The nation and the state of Utah appear to be experiencing a K-shaped recovery: one where the wealthy recover at a much quicker rate than the working poor. This is, in part, because low-income individuals typically work service and hospitality jobs. Because of their reliance on person-to-person interaction and frequent inability to move online, the service and hospitality sectors have been the hardest-hit.
In Utah the number of job losses in the leisure/hospitality industry was a staggering 21,700 jobs—one-third of the state’s total unemployment for 2020. While Utah’s wealthiest transition to working from home, its most impoverished are forced to man the state’s stores, restaurants and shopping malls. As rising case numbers increase the risk of disease and job losses, it is clear that these businesses will continue to suffer until the pandemic is over.
For all Utahns to have an equal chance at economic recovery, it is vital that both low-income Utahns and the businesses in which they work are given assistance. By passing statewide stimulus legislation in the upcoming legislative session, Utah’s governor can provide small businesses with temporary grants and tax breaks, allowing them to support low-income workers during this time of crisis.
Additionally, Utah can provide low-income families without a steady source of income with a monthly stipend until the economic crisis is over, giving them the economic security that they need to support themselves now and the opportunity to search for employment in the future.
Finally, Utah’s state government should increase the “Learn and Work in Utah” grant initiative that funds training for workers displaced by COVID-19. Economic recovery will undoubtedly be a long and complicated journey, but by providing low-income Utahns with the right focus and support, Utah’s governor can ensure that it is a successful one.
Adelaide Parker is a junior at West High School in Salt Lake City, where she writes for the school newspaper, The Red and Black.
This essay was the winner of the Fourth Annual Utah High School Essay Contest on Civility in Politics & Public Life sponsored by Westminster’s Honors College and underwritten by WCF Insurance. The contest drew entries from 223 students from 62 high schools across the state. Students were asked to offer advice for the incoming governor.