Frequently we criticize reporters for ignoring or obscuring the role religion might play in stories about socio-economic trends. But here's a case where a reporter led with the religious angle when looking at a new report that shows that Utah had the fifth-highest foreclosure rate in the nation. Apparently 1 in 231 homes there received a foreclosure notice in January, nearly double the national rate. The story says that explaining why Florida, Nevada, Arizona and California had even higher foreclosure rates is straightforward -- home prices more than doubled since 2000 and then real estate values dropped precipitously. But Utah home prices only rose half that much, the story says. So what's the deal with Utah, according to the Christian Science Monitor?:
"It's a lot of younger people who spent way, way beyond their means, absurd amounts of money trying to keep up with their folks," says one Utah resident who helps counsel financially troubled families at his church. They're "cool, nice, wonderful people, but an awful lot of them don't know how to spend money very wisely."
In mid-decade, when Utah was tops in bankruptcies, various commentators pinned the blame on Mormon religious and cultural practices, such as tithing, creating large families, buying homes at a young age, and as one critic put it: "the pressure in Mormonism to be, or at least appear, financially successful as proof the Lord is blessing them."
Indeed, Mormons in 2004 had a bankruptcy rate that was approaching twice that of the national average. But a 2007 study by two Harvard Law School graduates found that rates among non-Mormons in Utah were even higher, suggesting that religion, if anything, was restraining bankruptcies.
First off, what's the deal with not giving the person in the first quote a name? And does he speak only to experiences in his own unidentified congregation or do we have reason to think his explanation is applicable more broadly? And if you're going to suggest that the foreclosure ranking is caused by Mormons, you have to base it on much more than a nameless quote and no data. And when data is brought into the equation, it doesn't exactly support the thesis either.
Also, the way that reporter Laurent Belsie won't identify sources is frustrating. It's good to know, I guess, that two graduates of a particular law school studied the issue of bankruptcy in Utah. But who was the study for? Which peer-reviewed journal published it, if any? If someone wants to find out more information, rather than taking the reporter's word about what the study says (something I try not to do!), what do we do?
And wouldn't it be nice to know what percentage of Utah is Mormon and what percentage of that group is practicing Mormon? I'm not asking for a full blown regression analysis, but if you don't know enough about the difference between correlation and causation to look into a few of these issues, you really shouldn't be speculating on all this.
The rest of the story comes up with other explanations, including low wages, high medical costs, large number of bankruptcy filers with at least one dependent child, large family size, garnishment laws, repeat bankruptcy filers and something called "the effect of having a large proportion of young, middle-class people earning $30,000 to $60,000 a year." I'm not even sure half of these things are true but needless to say, they are really poorly explained.
Also, I have to mention the headline for this piece:
Foreclosure mystery: Why can't conservative Utahns afford their mortgage?
Now, certainly Utah as a state tends to vote conservatively but that doesn't mean that everyone in Utah is conservative. We don't know whether there is any correlation between the political or social views of a given Utahan and their propensity to foreclose on a property. For all we know, only liberal or moderate Utahans are foreclosing. That headline goes so far beyond what the original report looked at that it's laughable.
It's a good instinct to look at possible correlations between religious views and social trends. But if you're going to do it, I think it needs to be done a bit more thoroughly than we see here.