Shelves with food are displayed in an area of Welfare Square, a large complex where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides food, supplies, and services for those in need. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Last month, ProPublica co-published a piece with The Salt Lake Tribune that exposed what the Tribune’s editorial board later dubbed Utah’s “unholy merger of church and state.” Investigative journalist Eli Hager explained how intertwined Utah’s public assistance programs are with those offered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hager revealed that Utah’s state legislature has been able to avoid spending at least $75 million on alleviating poverty over the last decade by counting a percentage of welfare provided by the LDS Church as its own. This shocking disclosure has far-reaching ramifications. Not only does Hager show how particular LDS notions of morality have been prerequisites for receiving material assistance, even compelling some Utahns to join the church to receive aid, but the blurry lines between church and state have allowed proponents of “small government” anti-poverty initiatives to herald Utah’s system as a model. For example, the LDS Church’s welfare system has resonated so strongly with many conservatives and libertarians across the religious spectrum that a young Tucker Carlson once insisted that its “themes are ones the secular world would do well to study.”

However, studying the church’s history reveals that the government has done more to alleviate poverty and vault LDS members into positions of financial security than the church’s welfare system. Latter-day Saints have depended on government aid across the twentieth century, despite church leaders’ expressed aim to make all members “self-reliant.” The “unholy merger” between church and state in Utah is thus not merely confined to the state’s reliance on LDS welfare services. Rather, “unholy merger” could also be used to describe church members’ reliance upon government largesse.

The Great Depression of the 1930s transformed the relationship between the LDS Church and the state. Even before the stock market crash of 1929, Utah’s economy was in peril. Industries that had seen a massive boom during WWI, including mining, stock raising, and transportation, suffered greatly in the postwar economy. Moreover, Utah’s high birth rate, combined with the scarcity of arable soil in the state, exacerbated these trends. Historians Garth Mangum and Bruce Blumell found that in 1930, well before the Depression had taken full effect, only 33.5 percent of Utah’s population was “gainfully employed,” fewer than any other state except Mississippi. In many counties, Latter-day Saints were unemployed at a far greater rate than their non-Mormon counterparts. For example, in Salt Lake City’s Southgate LDS ward, or local congregation, 110 of the ward’s 173 heads of household were unemployed in 1932.

With seven-in-ten Utahans belonging to the LDS Church during this period, local bishops tried to help members in need. They created storehouses full of food and clothing, but these efforts proved insufficient. In response, the church-owned and operated Deseret News ran an editorial that deemed the government the “appropriate agency” to “meet the emergency.” Indeed, the government was the only entity capable of supporting Utahans through the crisis. From September 1932 to March 1933 alone, Utah received $2,560,299 from the federally funded Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), an average of $5 per capita (nationwide average was only $1.87 per capita). The state, and by extension the church, was so reliant on this aid that one Federal Emergency Relief agent called Utah the “the prize ‘gimme’ state of the Union.”

Shocked and embarrassed by Saints’ reliance upon the government, LDS Church President Heber J. Grant and fellow member of the First Presidency, J. Reuben Clark, created a “work-centered” system of relief in 1936. Later named the Welfare Plan, Grant and Clark hoped to save Latter-day Saints from debauching themselves on the morally stultifying government “dole.” “Our primary purpose,” Grant explained, “was to set up … a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift, and self respect be once more established amongst our people.” Grant and Clark did everything in their power to convince Latter-day Saints that the government was not, in fact, the “appropriate agency” to meet members’ needs, and they had no qualms deriding the very programs that were sustaining their members. Clark was so confident church leaders had developed a superior welfare system, he publicly declared that they intended to remove all Saints from federal relief within five months. His estimation proved naïve.

While church leaders publicly and ardently proclaimed that the Welfare Plan was a roaring success, statistics suggest otherwise. Historian Joseph Darowski found that during the plan’s first full year of operation (1937), the church spent $1,835,000 on direct relief and distributed an additional $115,000 worth of clothing, fuel, and produce. However, federal relief efforts amounted to some $48 million in 1936 alone and $300 million throughout the Depression (some $6 billion by today’s standards). While Saints proudly declared that they were making every member “self-supporting,” the Welfare Plan did not come close to meeting Saints’ needs.

During WWII and the Cold War, the federal government continued to play a key role in revitalizing Utah’s economy. “Like a gigantic elevator,” wrote Mormon historians Leonard Arrington and Thomas Alexander in 1965, “World War II lifted the state of Utah from the depths of depression to the heights of prosperity.” No description could be more apt. During and immediately after WWII, the federal government provided the infrastructure, jobs, education, and vocational training necessary for many white men to attain financial stability. To that end, a 2015 article in The Salt Lake Tribune described how Utah traded one form of federal welfare for another: “News photos of skinny men with shovels in the Civilian Conservation Corps building dams in the canyons were replaced by images of men and women assembling aircraft in giant hangars or rolling out steel by the ton.” Not wanting LDS men to miss out on these opportunities, Brigham Young University set up a “veterans guidance committee,” which gave returning Mormon servicemen information about the “privileges of the G.I. bill of rights and the veterans’ rehabilitation acts at BYU.” Moreover, the university designed classes to train Mormon men for newly created defense industry jobs. These benefits allowed many Mormon men to attend college, secure affordable housing, start new careers, and begin to build generational wealth. As historian Allan Powell summarized, the G.I. Bill expanded recipients’ earning capacity, effectively creating a larger middle class in Utah.

Still, church leaders once again obscured Saints’ reliance on the government by touting the Welfare Plan’s successes. While federal aid was pouring into Utah, church leaders simultaneously boasted that the Welfare Plan had restored the church’s ability to “provide for ourselves.” In 1952, for example, the Deseret News insisted that it was the Welfare Plan that had made every “needy” family in the church “self-sustaining.”

These claims raise consequential questions about the meaning of the term “self-sustaining.” LDS leaders did not discourage Saints from accepting federally funded college tuition, federally funded job training, federal employment, or low-interest mortgages. “Self-sustaining” was thus more synonymous with financial security than a lack of dependence upon the government. This logic allowed church members to utilize unprecedented amounts of federal aid while simultaneously insisting that the Welfare Plan had pulled impoverished Saints out of the Depression and allowed the church to “stand on our own.”

The church’s ability to obscure members’ mid-century dependence on government wealth-building programs has also allowed the Welfare Plan to serve as testament to the efficacy of private philanthropy. Upon touring an LDS welfare center in 1982, for example, President Ronald Reagan ironically proclaimed: “If more people had had this idea back when the Great Depression hit, there wouldn’t be any government welfare today or need for it.” In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president, Wall Street Journal commentator Naomi Schaefer Riley praised the LDS Church’s Welfare Plan as a “symbol of strength and self-sufficiency” and a “safety net that government can never hope to create.” In what has become a common pattern, the church reprinted these laudatory accounts, reinforcing the idea that the Welfare Plan alone deserved acclaim for helping members become financially stable.

To its credit, the LDS Church created one of the most impressive charitable systems in the world. The architects of the Welfare Plan believed they had a responsibility to their fellow church members to confront poverty in the “right” way, and members have since sacrificed greatly to that end. The church’s generosity is not even confined to its members. The Welfare Plan has provided relief in the wake of countless disasters (including Covid-19), and bishops have regularly aided non-church members in their communities (albeit, often with strings attached).

However, the Welfare Plan does not prove that Americans do not need government assistance, nor does it serve as a testament to, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “what the people could do for themselves if they hadn’t been dragooned into believing that government was the only answer.” Moreover, this narrative of self-sufficiency does not account for the hidden ways the government still aids many members, especially some of the wealthiest, through tax breaks. The LDS welfare system may help the state provide for its economically vulnerable citizens, but many members would not be in a position to donate so much to the Welfare Plan had the government not revitalized Utah’s economy and created generational wealth. Rather than serving as a testament to Saints’ “self-sufficiency,” the church’s ability to provide for Utahns in need also exhibits the triumphs of an active, innovative federal government.

Allison M. Kelley is a visiting assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.