Look at our society today and you’ll see many problems that seem intractable. Income inequality has caused the classes to harden, with the social ladder having several rungs kicked out. The idea that one can rise from poverty to create a great fortune, the way Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford did, now seems practically impossible.

But there is still one part of the country where the poor can become successful: Salt Lake City. If you’re in the bottom 20 percent of incomes and living in Charlotte, North Carolina, you only have a 4 percent chance of making it into the top 20 percent. But in Salt Lake City, poor people have a 10.8 percent chance of being rich. That’s very close to Denmark, where the poor have an 11 percent chance of becoming rich.

What is Salt Lake City doing that other cities aren’t? Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle went there to find out and discovered a simple answer: the Mormon Church, and in particular their philosophy of charity.

McArdle is an economics columnist; she also wrote a good book on failure, The Up Side of Down, which I reviewed here. She doesn’t do that much reporting, but based on this fine piece, I wish she would have more opportunities to go out into the field.

The Mormon rules are simple, and have been practiced long before the welfare state. All Mormons are supposed to have a year’s supply of food for emergencies. In addition, Mormons are supposed to fast for two days a month and donate the money saved to the church’s welfare fund. (This is in addition to the tithing all Mormons are supposed to perform.) They’re also encouraged to volunteer to help the poor as much as they can. Retirees amount for a great many of the volunteers.

McArdle visited Welfare Square, a giant operation that has a “bakery, dairy operation and canning facilities, all staffed by volunteers.” But you can’t buy anything in Welfare Square; the goods are handed out via “Bishop’s Orders,” where the bishops authorize dispersals of food.

The goal is to make sure that people who need help get it and get their problems solved as quickly as possible. A bishop told McArdle that if a Mormon is out of work for six months “it’s a failure on the part of many.”

“This combination of financial help and the occasional verbal kick in the pants is something close to what the ideal of government help used to be,” McArdle writes. When social work became “professionalized” a century ago, social workers lost the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. The goal is not to shame the unemployed to get a job, but to tailor the help needed to get Mormons in trouble back on their feet.

In addition, the Mormons encourage marriage and quietly offer help for troubled marriages, such as pointing a bickering couple to another couple that might offer remedies based on their experiences. Brigham Young University economist Joe Price says the church offers “scripts” which don’t necessarily involve religion but that most people in Utah accept. “Imagine the American Medical Association said that if the mother is married when she’s pregnant, the child is likely to do better.” That’s what happens in Utah, which has the highest marriage rate in the country. Kids who live in neighborhoods with a lot of married couples can see what married life is like. Children raised in neighborhoods where single parents dominate don’t.

The Mormon philosophy of welfare does not exclude government. But the state really does practice compassionate conservatism, which “goes hand-in-hand with an unusually functional bureaucracy.”

Go to most welfare offices, and you’ll see the caseworkers either overwhelmed by their workload or grimly soldiering on until their defined-benefit pensions vest. But “during the week I spent in Utah, I was astonished at how cheerful the civil servants were. They seemed to see no point in turf wars, as long as the work gets done by someone….No one I talked to, even off the record, said they needed bigger budgets or more staff.”

In one case, the state supported a substantial expansion of government. Utah fights homelessness through a “housing first” policy. (National Public Radio reported on this issue here.) The goal is to put homeless people in apartments and then figure out why they are homeless. The policy might save money because the homeless don’t spend time in emergency rooms. But the policy happened because the Mormon Church supported it.

Salt Lake City is fairly small, with just under 200,000 people in city limits, so one has to wonder whether policies adopted in Salt Lake City can work in places like Philadelphia or Chicago (though the point of federalism is that different states try different policies that make most sense to their specific circumstances). McArdle reminds us that the relationship between the state of Utah and the Mormon Church offers valuable lessons in how to fight poverty and encourage social mobility.

“Utahns seem strongly committed to charitable works, by government, alongside government or outside government. Whatever tools used are infused with an ethic of self-reliance that helps prevent dependency. And yet, when there’s a conflict between that ethic and mercy, Utah institutions err on the side of mercy. America could use a politics more like that.”

Photo credit: andrewasmith via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA