Government money and public funds pay for polygamy

Government, once the enemy of polygamy is now its benefactor.

April 6, 2002
By Rick Ross

Hildale -- Welfare is often how polygamist communities like Hildale in Utah and Colorado City in Arizona substantially support themselves. Polygamists often use food stamps to feed their families. Former polygamist Benjamin Bisline said, "If it wasn't for government subsidies, these people couldn't survive. There are people here with 15 wives on welfare.'' Bisline still lives in a polygamist town.

The twin polygamist communities of Hildale and Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona border totaled 5,274 in 1998. And everything within these towns is overshadowed by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), the largest polygamist group in North America.

Girls marry in their teens. Church leaders dictate these marriages, often wedding teenage girls to middle-aged men who already have wives. Nearly all the property in these towns is controlled by the FLDS through a trust called "United Effort Plan," which was run by a board of seven men in 1998.

Joe Knudson, a polygamist living near Colorado City claimed welfare dependency amongst polygamists is caused by religious prejudice, which has forced isolation from economic opportunities. He said, "They've created a ghetto here and shoved [us] into it and shoved a few crumbs our way to make [us] feel better...[and] forced us into an area where we have no other choice."

The "Woodruff Manifesto" of 1890 (issued by LDS President Wilford Woodruff), announced an end to polygamy. And in 1896 the subsequent passage of a law in Utah prohibited its practice. That law was a condition required for statehood. Ironically though, it seems that now the same governments that forbid the practice have become its greatest enablers.

Colorado City and Hildale were on a list of the top ten towns with a population over 2,000 in the Intermountain West for reliance upon Medicaid (health care for the poor) in 1998. And in that same year the same towns draw from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program (food for low-income mothers) could only be equaled by Western Indian reservations and impoverished inner cities. 33% of Hildale and Colorado City residents were using food stamps in 1998. To put this into perspective, respectively Arizona's average was 6.7% and Utah's 4.7% during that same period.

Hildale Utah

Median age 13.1
Youngest in state 26.8
Youngest in nation
Persons per household 8.55
Largest in state 3.13
Largest in nation
Avg household income* $21,822 $41,316
Per capita income $3,772
Lowest in state $14,492
% of families in poverty 32.4% 11.4%

Average household adjusted gross income from federal tax returns
Source: Utah Tax Commission 1995, US Census, Utah and Arizona Departments of Education.

Colorado City Arizona

Median age 12.5
Youngest in state 32.2
Persons per household 7.97
Largest in state 2.62
Avg household income* $19,663 $35,426
Per capita income $2,319 $13,461
% of families in poverty 61% 11.4%

Hildale received $405,006 from federal housing grants to remodel 19 homes on FLDS land. And Hildale Mayor David K. Zitting, an FLDS member, was appointed by two Utah governors (Republicans Norm Bangerter and Mike Leavitt) to sit on the state Housing Development Advisory Council.

In 1998 Hildale ranked last among Utah towns for average payment of federal income taxes paid per filer ($651 annually), but it is first for tax exemptions (3.62). The average income on Hildale tax returns is $14,500, which was last in Utah's 170 towns and cities in 1998. However, FLDS "prophet" Rulon T. Jeffs owned a four-acre estate within one of best areas of Utah. He has visited his church in a chartered Learjet.

Polygamy is illegal, but during the 90s Utah did little to enforce that law. But welfare checks were sent to supposedly "single" polygamist wives and their children. Even though these women lived in polygamist households.

Utah is dominated by The Mormon Church (LDS), which has a history of polygamy beginning with its founder Joseph Smith and continued by its subsequent leader, pioneer Brigham Young in Utah. Many Mormons have polygamist ancestors and are embarrassed by those that still exist, such as the FLDS. LDS spokesman Don LeFevre stated, "They have no affiliation whatsoever with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.''

Arizona ended its fight against polygamy not long after a 1953 raid on Colorado City (once known as Short Creek), which became a public relations nightmare for then Governor Pyle. One Utah Sheriff seemed to sum up the general attitude of law enforcement when he said in 1998, "We've got better things to do.'' Utah's Attorney General Reed Richards commented that same year, "Do we really want to take our police officers and have them going around peeking into windows to see who is sleeping with whom?''

But can the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City really exist without the government? Though there was not a case of welfare fraud prosecuted by 1998 concerning these communities, a Washington County sheriff's deputy did try to investigate food-stamp irregularities in 1994. But that investigation was shut down by federal authorities.

Utah's southern border only holds a fraction of the 30,000 polygamists in the West. Colorado City and Hildale, are separated by a street called Uzona Avenue. Once there were only a handful of families in this desolate area. But then came polygamists to build their "Millennial City'' in 1935. By 1998 the population had grown to 5,000 residents, almost all polygamists. The area has two colleges, a small industrial park, a school district, a power plant, a radio station, hundreds of houses, and two city governments with a combined annual 1998 budget of more than $13 million.

"Children should not be penalized because of the behavior of their parents. But if certain behaviors create a dependency on the public system, then it becomes a public-policy question that must be addressed'' said Roz McGee, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based advocacy group Utah Children.

Attorney Scott Burns explained, "One of the reasons why polygamists have not been prosecuted is because of the long-held belief that they aren't hurting anyone, that they are self-reliant and only want to be left alone. If they're taking welfare to support their large numbers of children, then they are hurting society.''

Less Hildale households receive food stamps than many Utah towns. However, more aid comes to Hildale as a community because of the number of children that live in each household. During one month in 1997 35 households received a total of $22,375 for 393 people, while another Utah town Parowan, got half that amount for 165 residents. The largest household in Parowan was seven members, while Hildale recorded a household of 37 people receiving food stamps.

Deanna Beagley was raised in a polygamist family that included two mothers with 25 children. When she was 15 two girls told her at school that they heard she was going to be their "new mother." Beagley later learned an FLDS leader had been given a "revelation" that she was to become the fourth wife of a middle-aged man she despised. Beagley asked for help from the principal of an elementary school in a nearby town. He adopted her.

In 1998 at 24 Beagley lived with her husband and three children on the outskirts of St. George, Utah. She had successfully established a new life. But she grew up on food stamps and welfare. She said, "I know women out there wouldn't be having as many babies if it weren't for the welfare. I remember being told that this was a work of God and it was up to the outside world to make us flourish.'' To get more welfare money her father's second wife lied, she claimed his first wife's children were also hers to collect more, Beagley said.

According to federal paperwork, Colorado City is filled largely with unwed mothers without any visible spousal support. But Beagley said this has become a polygamist tradition, so that no proof exists of their many marriages through public records. Husbands marry only once in a civil ceremony. Other subsequent marriages are done "spiritually, but not legally. Beagley concluded, "It's a way of life. You get married, you go on welfare, and that's it.''

Polygamous women are treated as single mothers. "In terms of food-stamp eligibility, she's not in a recognized marriage situation, and she'd be considered a single mom with kids,'' said Mason Bishop, spokesman for the Utah Department of Workforce Services

Deanna Beagley's husband, Norman, was raised in the Colorado City FLDS too. He said, "There are people out there who use welfare as an excuse. Their attitude is, `Where's mine?...If you took a camcorder at the till at the community grocery store, just to see how much money rolled across, you'd be surprised how much was real money and how much was welfare.'' According to Arizona records the Cooperative Mercantile Exchange, the one grocery store in Colorado City, collected $26,466 from the WIC food program in December 1997. Hildale has its own WIC office rented to the government for $400 a month in 1998. In an affidavit Hildale's town attorney stated, "There is a large amount of foot traffic in and out of [the WIC] office.''

Polygamy is a crime in Utah, but Governor Mike Leavitt said, "The state of Utah does not have an opportunity to adjust who's eligible and who's not.'' However, he did support more state control over welfare programs. Arizona's Governor Jane Dee Hull doesn't seem to care about welfare payments made to Colorado City. She said, "It's important to note that these families are not getting their benefits through any illegal activity.They are not deceiving the public in an effort to get their benefits. They get their benefits because they meet the legal eligibility requirements.''

Dexter Rees, manager of the St. George office of the Department of Workforce Services said caseworkers know what the actual status is of the "single mother'' in Hildale who applies for food stamps. But they can't deny their benefits. "A lot of people wonder why we turn the other cheek. It creates more problems than it solves when you go out and try to prosecute. We try to deal with each person equal and fair, without prejudice. If they meet our qualifications, then we will serve them,'' Rees said.

"We were taught that we were part of an order that was above governance by man, so we were above the laws of the land,'' said Janet Johansen, once a plural wife in the FLDS said, "One of the reasons I left was because I had moral qualms about the lying and deceit. I was uncomfortable living a lie: Who I was, who I was living with, where I was living, who else was in the house, what kind of work I did. I did tell people I was married, but no other details, except to identify my sister wife as my `mother-in-law.' ''

Leroy Johnson, deceased leader of the FLDS once said, "This is the only place, my brothers and sisters, upon the Earth that you can hear the fullness of the everlasting gospel preached.'' Almost everyone in Hildale or Colorado City attends one of the two FLDS churches. LDS hymns are sung there, the Book of Mormon is quoted and their leader is supposedly a prophet."

Centennial Park chapel, is less strict. Members can wear short-sleeve shirts. This church splintered away for the FLDS in 1986. Later a lawsuit was filed regarding the FLDS right to evict dissidents from their church-owned homes. In 1997 the court ruled in favor of the FLDS. They could force families out, but had to pay compensation for any property improvements. They appealed.

As part of that lawsuit, the church's attorneys explained how the United Effort Plan (UEP), controls church property in Colorado City. He stated, "Young men who have proven themselves worthy, approach one of their religious leaders and request the use of a `lot' on UEP property. Faithful members are often asked to move from one UEP home to another to accommodate those who the bishop finds more needy or more deserving.''

Hildale has the youngest median age -- 13.1 years old -- of any town in Utah. An average household is 8.55 people. Boys often do construction work for companies owned by FLDS polygamists. Men who don't work are strongly encouraged to perform community service for the FLDS United Effort Plan.

Men wear long-sleeve shirts, buttoned up to cover their priesthood undergarments. Women wear simple dresses, which cover their knees. Most polygamist families live in one house. The Man rotates from one bedroom to another. "Sister wives'' each have a bedroom and share baby-sitting, cooking and cleaning duties. One 51-year-old polygamist said, "The women believe it's necessary for their salvation -- and there's a lot of love in these homes. Some guys are so fair that if they buy chocolates for one, they buy them for everybody." He later confessed, "In a lot of ways, it's more frustrating than rewarding."

Trailers are parked next to mansions. Half the place seems to be under construction. This is because the FLDS dislikes mortgages. Nobody can get financing for a house, so homes are built when money is available. Rooms are added onto existing homes to make space for a new wife. Some houses have no windows. Drywall and lumber can be seen stacked next to cast foundations. Public money was used to remodel 19 homes according to Utah state records. People who received this money were picked by Hildale city officials. FLDS leader Fred Jessop approved each one according to court records.

Church authority is absolute. Former Hildale Mayor Lynn Cooke stated in a 1989 affidavit, "In every instance that I can remember that it was made known that the religious leaders desired a given outcome, that outcome was always achieved. I eventually came to the conclusion that Fred Jessop and the religious leaders were, in reality, the mayor of Hildale.''

Housing-rehabilitation grants were administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and supplemented with Utah tax dollars. Hildale was only one of the towns in Utah to apply for the money in 1987. Since no occupant of a Hildale house actually owns their own home "lease agreements" were drawn up to avoid any legal problem. In this way "tenants" could receive the grants. Utah housing specialist Kerry Bate said, "These people have done better with this program than anybody else in the state.'' The FLDS actually cashed in twice. First by improving its properties with government money and again by spending that money on materials at local businesses also affiliated with the church.

At Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow's office, agents from the Arizona Department of Economic Security do interviews for food-stamp benefits. The schedule was usually booked in the late 90s. The Mayor said, "Don't you think a child who meets the qualifications in Colorado City deserves the same benefits as a child who lives in Brooklyn?'' He conceded though that welfare payments made polygamist life better for FLDS families. But he felt those receiving benefits from the WIC program are actually doing "the thing that Americans do." Barlow claimed the community could get along without welfare if it had to. "We would survive, but we wouldn't survive at the level we are now. Like the rest of America, if it weren't for the aid of the government, many people would be at a lower lifestyle," he said. Unemployment though is almost zero in both Hildale and Colorado City, according to U.S. Census records. So why do 33% need food stamps? Barlow said this is because they "don't have high-paying jobs.''

Washington County Sheriff Glenwood Humphries started a welfare-fraud investigation in 1994, but was told to stop by USDA officials in Denver. There was no follow-up.

Colorado City had one radio station in 1998, KCAA. A program "In the Spotlight,'' is hosted by Tom Barlow. He often criticizes the federal government. On one show he blasted the "welfare state" and national debt. But Barlow, a trucker, admits to taking welfare to support his family and sees no contradiction. "This society we're in has got us in a trap,'' he said. He claims, "The dependence we have on such things as hydroelectric power and fossil fuels has got people in a situation where it's about impossible to raise families without government help. We're in a trap because we have to obey a lot of stupid laws from the state of Utah and federal government.'' The radio station itself actually sits on FLDS land and received $445,00 from the "Colorado City Improvement Association" (president and trustee is FLDS Presiding Bishop Jessop) to build and operate.

Former FLDS President Leroy Johnson once preached independence stating, "Every dime you take from the government will have a string attached.''

Another town controlled essentially by one religion was denied services and public money. This was the Oregon City of Rajneeshpuram, run by cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a "guru" from India. A federal judge ruled in 1984 that allowing the community to incorporate would amount to promotion of a specific religion. However, Hildale was chartered before that ruling.

Yet in 1985, a year after the Rajneeshpuram decision in federal court, Arizona allowed Colorado City to incorporate anyway, which made the town eligible to receive state and federal grants. Since then it has received over $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to pave streets, upgrade fire equipment and build a water-storage tank. Hildale got $94,000 for its fire station. And the government-financed airport on the edge of Colorado City cost $2.8 million. Mayor Dan Barlow, discounts the claim that the airport was built for FLDS leader Rulon Jeffs to land his chartered Learjet for Sunday meetings. "That wasn't part of it at all,'' He could fly into St. George just as easy."

Jeffs, who succeeded Leroy Johnson in 1986 is credited with the financial acumen that brought the FLDS into a new, modern era. Janet Johansen said, "He knew of all the breaks available and how to get around regulations and all the loopholes. Rulon Jeffs is the one who moved the group in that direction. He's the money man.''

The 1990s were actually something of a "golden age" for Colorado City and Hildale polygamists.

Note: The source for this article was "Polygamy on the Dole: Welfare aids the illegal lifestyle of many families in Utah-Arizona border community" Salt Lake Tribune/June 28, 1998, By Tom Zoellner

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