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Tess Vigeland: Utah is no stranger to crises, usually of biblical proportions. Plagues of crickets eat the crops. Mines collapse. Through it all, Utahans came together and forged ahead.
How does that pioneer spirit carry into today’s financial upheaval? For our visit to Salt Lake City we turned to local journalist and author Ken Verdoia. He briefed us on the economic history of the place, going back to the 1840s.
Ken Verdoia: In pioneering settlements, Salt Lake City was balanced on the head of a pin of agriculture, subsistence agriculture if you will: pioneer farms trying to produce enough food for the network of Mormons that had settled the Salt Lake Valley area.
[Mormon folk song]: Oh what a dreary place this was when first the Mormons found it. They said the land it was no good and the water was no gooder and bare idea of living here was enough to make men shudder…
That doesn’t change until the 1870s with the first infusion of non-Mormons and they begin a mining boom, which drives the economy all the way up to the Great Depression of the 1930s. When mining prices teeter in the East coast, your mining economy goes under.
Utah was devastated by the effects of the Great Depression — huge unemployment numbers in Utah — and they had a sense that the only people they could count on were each other. They developed a very progressive social welfare system in the 1930s that became the envy of the New Deal. Roosevelt administration people were sent out to Salt Lake City to study the Mormon church’s welfare system for caring for its own.
Every Mormon in good standing gives 10 percent back to the church for the pool of funds that provide food, clothing and shelter for members that are in a time of trial. But in the instant case, this church has an extraordinary ability to render assistance to members in good standing that are in financial crisis.
The Salt Lake City population is now pretty evenly balanced between Mormon and non-Mormon. On one hand, we have these personal traits of fiscal austerity, conservative and saving money for a rainy day, and yet conversely, we have this dark side that wants to make a quick buck the easy way. We have been routinely victimized by stock fraud, by confidence schemes. We have been the financial fraud capital of North American at times.
Utah is still considered this crossroads of the American West, still this largely rural, largely isolated economic enclave that goes it on it’s own and moves to a slightly different drummer, many times 18-24 months behind the national economic trends.
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