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A cadence of accountability | Mormon integralism, pt 4
The roots of Utah exceptionalism
Part three ended with the Great Depression and the New Deal reforms — a potentially existential period for the LDS Church had it not adapted in year time. The development of the Church Security Program aimed to co-opt the spirit of the New Deal and, where possible, integrate it with the LDS’s pre-existing commitment to cooperative mutual aid. In turn, the (very real) threat that federal spending would “crowd-out” traditional religious institutions was not just abated but turned into an opportunity, reinforcing the Church’s role in mediating and supplementing a variety of novel social programs.
FDR’s work-relief programs were a case in point. Utah took full advantage of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to build new and improved infrastructure across the state’s many rural communities. But rather than stop there, LDS leadership believed it was incumbent to create a work-relief program of their own.
For inspiration, Church leaders assigned Stewart Eccles to visit Los Angeles to study Goodwill Industries, the nonprofit thrift store that resells low-cost donated goods. Upon his return, it was decided that something similar would be useful for providing entry-level work and job training for unemployed members of the Church. The Church thus created Deseret Industries (originally “Welfare Industries”) in 1938 and placed Mr. Eccles in charge.
Helping others help themselves
Similar to Goodwill, Deseret Industries (DI) is a non-profit organization that collects donated goods and either resells or donates them after refurbishment. The stores tend to locate in areas with large LDS populations. The first DI store opened in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the Church’s headquarters are located. Today there are 46 stores operating across Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington.
DI’s mission is to “help others help themselves.” In practice, this means providing basic vocational and on-the-job training to those in need, whether they’re an LDS member or not. Where appropriate, bishops can also refer individuals to sister organizations, including Development Counseling Services, Self-Reliance Services (formerly LDS Employment) and LDS Family Services. (DI further enables unsold items to be up-cycled or used in humanitarian aid during LDS missions overseas.)
Each DI store has a Manager who oversees the operations of the store and the vocational training of the associates. Vocational rehabilitation counselors that are part of Deseret Employment, a separate entity, meet with each Deseret Industries Associate to help them achieve their goals. Besides this, each store also employees a number of Job Training Coaches that function as supervisors and vocational coaches to the associates.
Individuals employed by DI are frequently coming from situations of unemployment, low-wage work, or other financial hardships.1 While they needn’t be Mormon, they have to be referred by a bishop, the lay leader of the local congregation. With a referral in hand, individuals next meet with a licensed social worker who serves as a Development Counselor. The Development Counselor conducts an interview to see if DI is the appropriate place for them to move forward in their career. If a worker just needs a certificate to improve their current job situation, the Development Counselor may refer them to another agency or even recommend that DI pay for their schooling. If the individual is selected to serve as a DI associate, they then meet with the store manager for an interview to assess their needs, capabilities, and availability for work. From the start, the Development Counselor sets out clear expectations that the job is only temporary; a segue to better opportunities, and as such Counselors make successful job placements their ultimate goal.
With Deseret Industries, the Church Security Program began the process of professionalizing and standardizing practices that Mormon communities had informally engaged in for decades. This process was completed in 1975, after the Church recognized a need to “bring the many locally operated welfare facilities under a central administrative umbrella,” establishing the LDS Welfare Services division in its modern form.
The present-day LDS welfare system is embedded within the institutional context of the LDS Church’s system of congregational subdivisions. “Wards” refer to a congregations encompassing 150 to 500 church members within a reasonable distance of a common chapel or meetinghouse. “Stakes” are the next highest level of organization, created out of five or more wards in adjacent areas. “Branches” are the smallest subdivision, typically representing new or geographically isolated congregations without the numbers to yet warrant becoming a ward.
Wards are led by lay bishops who preside voluntarily over their local Relief Society and Ward Council. Among their many responsibilities, bishops direct their ward’s welfare programs under a divine mandate to seek out and care for the poor. They have the specific discretionary authority to open bishops’ storehouses and to refer individuals to the Church’s various welfare services. The Ward Council is further charged with maintaining a list of their local members skill sets, while developing written contingency plans for emergency situations. Having a locus for information gathering is particularly important for an organization as large as the LDS Church which, despite its hierarchical organization, rests on the decentralized authority of bishops.
The Church’s central authorities, the President and Twelve Apostles, delegate most of the authority over the Church’s temporal affairs to a group of three men known as the Presiding Bishopric. Among other things, the Bishopric oversees the collection and distribution of tithing and donations from Church members, as well as the panoply of Church welfare programs. This includes the Church’s “Helping Hands” volunteer work, granaries and farms used to provide food for low-income families and food-storage purposes, and the DI and Deseret Employment branches.
While most Deseret stores are able to support their own expenses through sales of thrift store goods, others rely on money from the Church’s centralized Welfare Services division. Revenue sharing plays an important role in the success of the LDS Church’s welfare system, as otherwise the poorest communities would be put at a resource disadvantage in their service to the poor. Tiths and other revenue collected by the Church are thus distributed to stakes and wards on the basis of need, just as federalized democracies like Germany or Canada provide equalization payments to sub-jurisdictions to support the equitable delivery of public goods.
The implicit revenue sharing provided by the LDS Church’s tithing distribution creates a degree of horizontal equity across local LDS wards and stakes, enabling the sort of “fiscal federalism” needed for Church subsidiaries to operate with “embedded autonomy.” Embedded autonomy refers to lower-level units within an organization that have operational autonomy in the context of higher-level goals and benchmarks for evaluation. Studies on the effectiveness of bureaucracies, both in and out of government, often identify embedded autonomy as essential to the success of any large organization. The LDS Church is no different. As historians of LDS Church have noted, allowing each stake to "act independently in aiding members within its boundaries” helped produced some "truly innovative programs," of which DI was but one.2
While there have been no independent evaluations of the LDS Church’s success at transitioning individuals out of poverty and into work, Utah’s socioeconomic outcomes speak for themselves. Indeed, Utah boasts the second lowest poverty rate in the United States and single highest rate of income equality. It would beggar belief if this had nothing to do with the LDS and their network of mutualist organizations, including DI. Unfortunately, while more research is clearly warranted, a rigorous evaluation would require unprecedent access to internal Church records and may thus prove elusive.
In the meantime, the extent to which church and state can be neatly separated is not at all clear. While Utah is of course officially secular and home to many non-Mormons, the contemporary LDS Church and state government co-evolved within a common zeitgeist. The feedback loops between Utah’s institutional and cultural development thus represent what economists call “endogeneity,” making causal identification hard if not impossible to tease out.
Consider Utah state legislature’s passage of the Intergenerational Poverty Mitigation Act of 2012. As Natalie Gochnour explains in a 2020 article for American Affairs,
The legislation set Utah on a course to share administrative data sets, establish a policy vision, and commit to a measurable reduction in Utah families experiencing intergenerational poverty. Change would not come easy. It required sharing data that had never been shared before, making investments that had never been made before, trying interventions that had never been tried before, and evaluating performance that had never been measured before. Collaboration, trust, and goodwill would be central to the state’s success.
With echoes of the Church Security Program, Utah is now in its eleventh year of combating intergenerational poverty and seeing significant success. In 2019, the Commission found that the number of children in intergenerational poverty fell by 42 percent from 2012 to 2017, while adults in intergenerational poverty decreased by 24 percent over the same period. Policymakers in Utah attributed this success to several innovative policies and programs, including:
placing the most effective teachers in schools with students exhibiting high rates of intergenerational poverty;
providing scholarships for four-year-olds facing intergenerational poverty to attend a high-quality preschool;
focusing on the employment needs of the entire family unit (rather than exclusively on the parents’ employment needs) and other two-generation approaches to case management;
investing in rural counties with high rates of intergenerational child poverty; and
implementing consent forms that allow early childhood liaisons to work on a family’s behalf to coordinate services across state agencies.
While Utah’s recent war on intergenerational poverty was driven by the state legislature, its success hinged on effective interagency coordination and the cadence of trust and accountability provided to social workers and non-governmental stakeholders.
Two of the six “foundational truths” undergirding the governance of the LDS welfare system underscore a commitment to utilizing community resources, whether government funded or not.3 As such, the entire complex of LDS welfare and employment services now works alongside state and local agencies, often referring individuals to state-run workforce and educational programs and vice versa. DI counsellors in Utah, for instance, will often refer individuals to the Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) or the Bear River Association of Governments (a local government association).
In other words, just as the LDS Church leveraged the New Deal to strengthen their communities, the State of Utah leveraged the social capital implicit in the LDS community to strengthen its provision of public aid. Whether this success can be replicated in other states is another question — one I’ll return to in part five.
Thank you to Vidalia Cornwall and Jacob Caldwell, whose interviews of DI employees (shared via correspondence) helped inform this section.
Allen and Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, page 521.
“Utilize the blessings of all the Lord’s storehouse” and “Create vibrant and mutually beneficial relationships with community resources” are the two principles I have in mind. The others are “Be clear on the focus from day 1”; “Use results and development discussions as an Engine for Change”; “Master your role”; and “Create a cadence of accountability.”