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Study shows Jackson has the nation’s widest gap between rich and poor

December 30, 2016

Teton County exists largely in its own world. Jackson Hole Airport is by far the busiest in the state and a thriving tourism economy has insulated the region from Wyoming’s economic downturn driven by plummeting energy prices.

But that doesn’t mean Jackson doesn’t have its own problems.

A June study found that the resort town had the widest gap between rich and poor in the nation.

The study, by the Economic Policy Institute, found that the top 1 percent of Jackson’s population earned 213 times the average income of the remaining 99 percent.

The town has attracted national attention for a housing crisis that has led to some tourist industry workers piling into cramped apartments, sleeping in hallways and erecting tents in living rooms. And with the difference between the rich and non-rich in Jackson reaching an extreme in 2016 there is little evidence that 2017 will be different.

“The problem is those whose livelihood is not connected to the local economy vastly outstrips the incomes of those whose income are related to the local economy,” said Jonathan Schechter, director of the Charture Institute think tank in Jackson.

Schechter said high-paid professionals in finance or technology may have the luxury of working from anywhere in the world, and given Jackson’s natural beauty and enjoyable lifestyle many relocate to the area.

“There’s no way a T-shirt salesman can out-compete a bonds salesman in New York who’s working remotely,” Schechter said.

While Jackson may be an extreme example, co-author of the Economic Policy Institute study Mark Price said communities where the ultra-wealthy are surrounded by low-wage service workers is becoming a national trend.

“The world that we appear to be headed toward is a ‘Downton Abbey’ world where the rich have a lot of wealth and employ a lot of service workers,” Price said, referencing the popular television show that follows an aristocratic British family in the early 20th century.

With the ongoing slump in the state’s energy industry -- one of the last bastions of high-paying work available without a college degree -- the rest of Wyoming may be moving closer to Jackson’s wealth disparity.

According to the EPI study Wyoming ranked third in the nation when it came to the gap between the average income of the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent.

“I don’t see any obvious way to deal with this,” University of Wyoming economics professor Anne Alexander said.

Price and Alexander agreed that there was little difference between the top 1 percent making 100 times more than the rest of the population as opposed to 200 times more.

“There’s only so much expensive food or nice wine and cheese that you can buy,” Alexander said.

But when it comes to housing and political influence the more wealth that is concentrated at the top, the more the rest of society can be marginalized.

While even luxury goods and services usually have set prices that won’t be impacted by whether the buyer has a net worth of $100 million or $1 billion, the housing market is spurred by how much people are willing to pay. There, net worth and income comes into play.

“The fact that you make 100 times or 200 times more can impact the amount you’re willing to pay for that piece of land,” Alexander said.

Similarly, Price said that in the political arena the more money an individual has the easier it is for them to push personal agendas without much thought.

“Income is so high at the top that it is a trivial question for people to make large donations to make to political candidates they favor,” he said. “It creates an outsize voice for them.”

But when it comes to Jackson, Schechter said it has been about 30 years since someone making the median income in Jackson was able to afford the median home price. He said the income differentiation is now so vast that even if it continues to grow -- as he speculated might occur if President-elect Donald Trump follows through on his plan to cut taxes on the wealthy -- it is unlikely that results will be directly felt in the community.

“At this point I think we’ve gone well past that threshold,” Schechter said. “The fact that there’s going to be huge tax cuts and it’s going to screw the poor and help the rich, is it going to make a huge difference? No.”

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