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How Ogden, Utah Has The Lowest Level Of Income Inequality

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think most people hate to think of themselves as middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You have what you need, but maybe not everything you want.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have a car, but we live in an apartment. That's middle class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you add a boat then you're not middle class anymore. That's what changes it right there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The middle class are families who are earning six figures.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Thirty thousand, $35,000 probably.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: That means me, and it means I'm in trouble (laughter).


This is Hanging On, our continuing series about the American middle class. And today, we're going to focus on Ogden, Utah because Ogden has the highest percentage of people in the middle class of any of the country's largest metropolitan areas. Sixty percent of Ogden residents can be defined as middle class. That's according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Brookings Institution.

To find out how Ogden has apparently narrowed income inequality more than any other city in America, we reached out to someone who knows that city well. Mike Caldwell was born and raised there, and he's been mayor of Ogden since 2012. He began by taking us back to Ogden's glorious past.

MIKE CALDWELL: So Ogden's got a unique history. When the transcontinental rail line came in, Ogden City was one of the stops. So every single transcontinental rail car had to stop in downtown Ogden because they had to refill their coal and their water cars. In fact, the golden spike was only about 50 miles just north of where Ogden city sits today. We were the centers of innovation and finance and cattle and manufacturing. In fact, in the early 1900s we had more millionaires per capita in Ogden city, Utah than we had in any other city in the United States of America.

BLOCK: Wow. So those were the boom years, and then what happened?

CALDWELL: Those were the boom years. And then in the '50s, the diesel engine came on line and the interstate freeway system came online. And almost overnight, all of that commerce that was centered around every single transcontinental rail car coming through our community left. And Ogden wasn't prepared to make that shift. And we probably went through four decades of some really steep economic decline and depression.

BLOCK: So how did that get turned around then?

CALDWELL: You know, one of the things Ogden did that I think has really served us well is we picked three areas, in terms of the economy, we really wanted to focus on. We've had tremendous access to the outdoors, so outdoor recreation was a big one. We also have a very unique advanced manufacturing cluster that's in Northern Utah right now. And then we're very close to the Hill Air Force Base, and so we have a lot of aerospace that comes with that as well.

And so those three pillars, the three legs of the stool, if you will, were what we really focused on. And the lion's share of the work done in advanced manufacturing is, you know, you can get out of high school, get a six-month certificate at the tech college, get into these companies. And then there's a tremendous amount of opportunity when you get in there. That ease of access into those industries is really, I think, what has helped us create a middle class and helped to start working our way out of, you know, families that have lots of intergenerational poverty or haven't ever really kind of figured that out.

BLOCK: When you think about how people in Ogden feel about their economic status, do they feel financially secure both for themselves and overall, for the overall economy?

CALDWELL: I think we have a sense of confidence now that we haven't had in a long time. And you see that in our restaurants downtown and as we have different cultural events and concerts and things like that. People are much more inclined to come and participate in that now. Those three industries - the outdoor industry, the aerospace and the advanced manufacturing - those are all very stable industries.

A lot of communities around us that had really built up tourism and everything else, when we had the bubble burst in 2007, got crushed because they had one industry and they depended so heavily on that one industry that a hiccup or a bump like we had with this depression really did harm to those communities. And it really wrecked some of that self-confidence.

We know that the aerospace and what's going on with the Air Force Base and some other things, those are all very stable. And so I think we are better positioned to weather some of those big bumps in the economy.

BLOCK: Mike Caldwell is the mayor of Ogden, Utah. He joined us from the studios of KUER. Mayor Caldwell, thanks so much.

CALDWELL: Thank you very much, Melissa. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.