Richard Badenhausen: Do concerns of Utah’s Legislature align with Utah’s young citizens?

Our young people are watching carefully and taking notes.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox delivers his State of the State address at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. At rear are EmmaKate and Abby Cox, and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson.

In a typically clever and well-researched recent piece, Salt Lake Tribune data columnist Andy Larsen used Gov. Spencer Cox’s January 19 State of the State address to ask whether the concerns of the governor and the 2023 Legislature aligned with the hopes, dreams, and worries of Utah’s young citizens.

For Larsen, this question seemed fair game because Cox drove home his point by “refer[ing] to each bill named in his speech by the children of the bill’s legislative sponsors.” With the legislative session wrapping up on March 3, it seems like a good time to revisit Larsen’s question.

There was, however, one pesky problem in asking “What matters to [Utah’s] young people?” Larsen found only one poll in the past decade that broke out concerns by age, and the youngest group surveyed in that Utah Foundation study were millennials. Noting the absence of Generation Z’s voice – or those born from 1997 onward – Larsen located three other surveys, but they were national polls and included many respondents in their thirties and forties.

I am happy to fill in this research gap with some data specific to Larsen’s query. (Full disclosure: Larsen graduated from the academic program I lead.) Since 2017, Westminster’s honors college has sponsored an annual statewide high school essay contest, underwritten by WCF Insurance and whose first prize is $2,000. In late fall 2020, on the eve of Spencer Cox’s ascension to the governor’s office, students across Utah were invited to write two-page essays on the issue they would identify for the new chief executive as the most important facing Utah.

Clearly young people had things on their minds: 223 students from 62 high schools composed responses and a bipartisan group of judges selected a paper by West High’s Adelaide Parker as the winner, a submission subsequently published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

So not only do we have a rich treasure trove of essays telling us what matters most to Utah’s high schoolers, but they were concerns students wanted to deliver directly to the governor.

The top two subjects taken up by students – representing 38% of the essays – were the COVID pandemic and challenges around public education, which makes sense, as students lived daily with the consequences of decisions about those issues. Many students were frustrated that not enough was being done to protect them and others from the virus.

There was significant discontent with their experience in schools. Students did not call out their hard-working teachers but instead expressed weariness with low funding from the state, its focus on standardized testing and the prospect of public monies being diverted to support private school vouchers. One student even set these concerns against the governor’s own promise to “unleash Utah’s education potential.”

The third most popular topic, taken up by 9% of students, centered on civility and community building. Many were upset by the divisions between political parties and the lack of civility marking our political discourse. Students desired greater empathy and respect in our political processes, a theme the governor has emphasized throughout his career.

Mental health support/access and suicide awareness/prevention ranked fourth, especially as reflected in students’ own challenges and those of family members.

Coming in fifth was pollution in the Salt Lake Valley and frustration that more wasn’t being done to improve air quality. The larger issue of climate change was also referenced repeatedly, as young people will have to ride out climate disruption the longest. Some felt young people were being ignored during conversations about issues they had the greatest stake in.

Rounding out the top six was racial justice, especially considering the murders of Breonna Taylor in March 2020 and George Floyd in May 2020.

Most of these essays were passionate, nuanced and well-argued. Clearly our young people are watching carefully and taking notes. I leave it to others to decide whether their concerns are being addressed by our state leaders.

Richard Badenhausen is dean of the Honors College at Westminster College and past president of the National Collegiate Honors Council.