Our Northern Neighbor: Comparing the economies of Utah and Idaho

I love the state of Idaho. I love the spectacular mountains, the rivers and the farmlands. I enjoy visiting the small towns and view Boise as an up-and-coming metropolitan area with an urban vibe. I love Sun Valley in the winter or summer and always welcome the chance to take my family there for a getaway. Mostly, I appreciate the people of Idaho for their friendliness, hardiness and industrious spirit. We are fortunate in Utah to have such a wonderful neighbor to the north.

I’ve watched with interest over the past few years as Utah businesses have expanded their reach into Idaho. Zions Bank has a beautiful headquarters building in the new Eighth & Main 18-story high rise in Boise. Several Utah-based insurance companies have expanded their portfolios into the Idaho market, and Utah construction companies frequently build projects there. Indeed, the economic connections between Idaho and Utah are deepening, creating more and more opportunity for businesses in both states. I think this is a positive trend.

Interestingly, a review of the economic and demographic data reveals a few surprises about Utah and Idaho.

Measuring differences

In Utah we talk a lot about our strong economy, but Idaho’s is actually growing faster than ours. From September 2015 to September 2016 (the most recent data available), Idaho ranked third fastest in the country in terms of job growth, while Utah tied for fifth. No wonder the Idaho economy is attracting Utah businesses—there are opportunities for growth there.

Most Utahns know Utah’s population is larger than Idaho’s, but the magnitude may surprise you. Idaho’s current population of 1.7 million people is closer in size to Nebraska, Hawaii or West Virginia than it is to Utah. In fact, Idaho’s current population is the same size as Utah’s was 30 years ago! I didn’t realize there was such a large difference.

Similarly, Utah’s economy weighs in much larger than the Idaho economy. Personal income is one of the best measures of total economic activity at the state level, similar to gross domestic product at the national level. Utah’s personal income of $118 billion tallies 85 percent larger than Idaho’s $64 billion. And if you look at job counts, Utah has twice as many non-agricultural jobs.

I took a quick look at Colorado’s economic data as a comparison and noticed a pattern. In economic and demographic size, Utah is to Idaho what Colorado is to Utah.

The differing sizes of Utah and Idaho also show up in the volume of commodity exports. Utah exports measured three times larger than Idaho’s in 2015. Utah exported $13.4 billion in commodity exports in 2015, compared to Idaho’s $4.3 billion. That’s an astounding difference.

Utah also attracted $2.2 billion in Department of Defense Prime Contract Awards in 2009 (most recent available), compared to Idaho’s $116 million, another large difference.

There are other important differences.

Utah’s 2015 poverty rate is lower by a full three percentage points (9.3 percent in Utah v. 12.3 percent in Idaho). Utah incomes are also higher on both a per capita and a household basis.

One of the most important differences is the economic structure of both states. Utah has an extremely well diversified economy, ranking fourth in the nation in 2015, compared to Idaho’s 37th ranking. This gives Utah more economic stability should any one industry struggle.

A state on the move

I mention these differences to provide business leaders with a sense of scale and context. Idaho is still quite different than Utah. You see it in the economic data and you see it in the community. Our airport, rail transit, convention center, professional sports, symphony, opera and theater assets tower over theirs.

But keep an eye on Idaho. The Gem State offers fertile ground for business. The economy is growing, unemployment is low, business costs are favorable and life quality is high. The state has extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities, and its urban center is on the move. Great things are happening in Boise.

Utah and Idaho share strong ties and we should strengthen these. Not only is Idaho a wonderful state, it’s close by and shares many positive traits with Utah. I encourage business leaders to give Idaho a serious look.

Natalie GochnourNatalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.