In an effort to better understand why Provo differs from other cities of comparable size and composition, I recently combed through some census data. As it turns out, the government provides a handy QuickFacts page for every city in the U.S.
My goal in looking at this data was to understand why Provo doesn’t have as thriving a downtown, for example, as other cities like Boulder, Colorado. Boulder and a handful of other cities often come up in conversations about how to improve Provo, and there seems to be a sense that if Provo could just feel more like Boulder it would be similarly successful.
I compared Provo to four other cities: Boulder; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Ogden, Utah. All of these cities have colleges, comparable population sizes, and generally anchor medium-sized metros orbiting larger cities. Moreover, I included Ogden due to its proximity to Provo and its relationship to Salt Lake City, and Chattanooga because it’s one of the few cities of its size that consistently pops up in urban-oriented news.
What I found wasn’t encouraging. First, with 115,321 people, Provo is the second largest of the five cities and closest in size to Ann Arbor.
So far so good.
But when the median incomes for these cities are compared, Provo gets into trouble:
The graph above — where blue represents city income levels and red represents state income — reveals that Provo has the second lowest median income of all five cities. It just barely beat Chattanooga, and is even lower than Ogden. Here’s the data from both of the graphs, in case you want to see exact figures (click to enlarge):
The problem here isn’t just low income. As the second graph shows, the median income in Provo is also lowest of all five cities relative to its state. In other words the disparity between incomes in Provo and the surrounding community is larger than in any of these five cities.
Or, put another way, Provo is the poorest of all five cities. Only Chattanoogans may make slightly less, but that’s more characteristic of their state and, presumably, the lower state income levels indicate a lower cost of living.
It’s also worth pointing out just how much richer Boulder in particular is than Provo. The median income in Boulder is $13,887 higher than in Provo, and it’s much closer to the state median income.
Given these figures, it’s no wonder Provo struggles. People in Provo have thousands of dollars less to spend, meaning there simply isn’t as much wealth to support a vibrant retail sector, the arts, or entertainment, for example. Lower income also means less tax revenue, among other things, which translates into less money for the government to spend on various projects.
Frankly, it’s a wonder Provo has managed to compete at all given its comparably limited resources. I also have to admit I was surprised by these results; I knew that the median income in Provo would be lower than it is in Boulder or Ann Arbor, but I didn’t expect such a significant disparity, nor did I expect Ogden to be better off.
I’m not an economist — and I don’t want to oversimplify this data — but Provo’s relatively low median income seems like one of the biggest obstacles to downtown revitalization, neighborhood gentrification, and generally improving quality of life. In the end, none of those things are going to happen if people in Provo don’t have the money to support them.
And yet far as I can remember I’ve also never heard any discussion regarding this issue. Ever. Why is that? Though it may be a bit wonkish, this is extremely important because it directly impacts Provo’s ability to improve. Ultimately, wanting the city to improve and sprucing it up here and there is nice, but if Provo remains the poorest city in its class it’ll never be the most vibrant, lively, or successful.
Check back in the coming days for follow-up posts on how Provo’s home values, poverty levels, business environment, etc. compare to these five cities.