Innovation Lab Council: Utah’s middle class faces new realities

Housing affordability, childcare costs, rising energy and transportation prices impact our ability to reach middle class.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) The sweets and biscuits aisle pictured in a local grocery store on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.

Each quarter, The Tribune’s Innovation Lab Advisory Council convenes to discuss significant issues facing Utah. Recently, the council examined the concept of the middle class in Utah and explored ways to better support it. Below are excerpts from the discussion.

Shifting financial realities

A notable concern is the shifting financial reality of the middle class. Historically, families could allocate part of their income to savings and leisure activities. Today, a larger portion of income goes towards essentials like rent and food, leaving little room for unexpected expenses. Education was once seen as a pathway to a stable job and income, and today some Utah students are opting for trade certificates or entering construction directly from high school, seeking immediate and stable income.

Affordability and housing innovations

Another critical issue is the affordability crisis. The middle class could historically afford more than the previous generation, but now maintaining the same lifestyle as previous generations is challenging. Innovations in housing are a solution. Efforts involving numerous universities and entrepreneurial initiatives aim to impact affordability. These initiatives include the creation of a preservation fund, local foundations focused on housing solutions and significant contributions towards education and student housing. Such efforts are designed to address the broader issue of housing affordability and need to be paired with actions from policymakers, especially local ones to collectively make strides especially for homeownership.

[Join us for a conversation supporting a strong middle class in Utah]

Economic stability and childcare costs

Economic stability and access to necessary tools for self-sufficiency were also key topics. A significant gap exists between those who need access to these tools and the resources available. Childcare costs, in particular, were highlighted as a barrier. Some families pay up to $4,000 a month for childcare, which is a substantial financial burden. The historical lack of childcare infrastructure in Utah, rooted in traditional gender roles, exacerbates this issue.

Cost-burden standards

The discussion also addressed statistical standards for being cost-burdened. Traditionally, spending more than 30% of income on housing and 15% on transportation indicates a cost burden. This measure should be considered a community standard when discussing middle-class affordability. By factoring in both housing and transportation costs, more comprehensive solutions can be developed.

Rising energy costs

Rising energy costs due to infrastructure shortcomings were another concern. Electricity costs, which are expected to increase significantly in the next five to seven years, will impact household budgets. Energy is a non-negotiable necessity, and upcoming rate increases need to be considered in the broader context of middle-class affordability.

[Read more: The Innovation Lab explores strategies and solutions for supporting Utah’s middle class]

Understanding the middle class

The council’s discussion aimed to define what it means to belong to the middle class in Utah today. Common characteristics, include:

  • Income range: Typically earning between $40,000 and $120,000 annually, depending on household size.

  • Employment: Includes professionals, managers, educators, healthcare workers, engineers, IT specialists, skilled tradespeople and more.

  • Education: Often have higher education degrees or specialized training.

  • Lifestyle: Includes homeownership, healthcare access, retirement savings, investing in children’s education and enjoying social activities.

  • Economic security: Stable employment, health insurance and ability to manage financial emergencies.

  • Values: Prioritize stability, education and upward mobility.

The Innovation Lab Advisory Council is a diverse group of experts and leaders. Participants included Patrice Arent, a former state legislator; Mallory Bateman, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Institute; Erick Garcia, West Valley Partnership Manager at University Neighborhood Partners; Melissa Hart, president of philanthropic operations at Stena Foundation; Clark Ivory, CEO of Ivory Homes; Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council; and Maile Resta, Partnerships and Communications Associate at rPlus Energies.

Facilitated by Michael Parker, director of Community Solutions for the Innovation Lab and principal and founder of Do Good, and Lauren Gustus, editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, this council brought together its collective expertise to explore actionable strategies for enhancing economic stability and growth, focusing on the challenges and opportunities facing Utah’s middle class.

Join the Conversation: Recognizing that there are many ways Utahns can support each other, we invite you to share your thoughts on how to uplift the middle class. Please email your ideas to voices@sltrib.com.