Big mountains and wealth canyons in Jackson Hole

town-of-jackson-06A Grand Canyon of wealth disparity in shadow of the Teton Range

JACKSON, Wyo. – Jackson Hole is noted for the sky-piercing Teton Range. But it also has a Grand Canyon-like gap between the ultra-wealthy and everybody else.

The Economic Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington D.C., recently ranked Teton County as having the most unequal incomes in the United States. The report found that the average income of the top 1 percent was 213 times the average income of the bottom 99 percent of households.

Local economist Jonathan Schechter earlier this year painted more detail in this picture. He cited Internal Revenue Service data that shows Teton County is the wealthiest in the United States based on per capita income. In 2014, the most recent year available, per capita income was $194,585.

Schechter finds this chasm: 9 percent of people accounted for 89 percent of all income in Jackson Hole. Flipped on its head, this means 91 percent of people account for just 11 percent of wealth. That disparity is the most pronounced in the United States.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide observes that the wealth disparity is manifested particularly in housing. The last time a family earning the median income of Teton County could afford a median-priced home was in the mid-1980s. County planners estimate that a family now must make nearly three times the median income to be able to afford a median-priced home.

Earlier this summer, the median price of homes listed for sale was $2.5 million. Only seven single-family houses were listed for under $750,000, according to the Jackson Hole Report issued by David Viehman, a real estate agent.

Aspen and Pitkin County have the fourth greatest inequality in the nation. There, 9 percent of people have 73 percent of the wealth.

Schechter makes the argument that Wyoming’s tax laws also encourage Jackson Hole’s imbalance. Yes, the Tetons are dramatic, he seems to say, but there are some bottom-line reasons why big money is lofting into Jackson Hole.

Jackson, Wyo., remains a popular tourist destination, but the larger story may the permanent residents of great wealth who now call it home. Photo/Allen Best

Jackson, Wyo., remains a popular tourist destination, but the larger story may the permanent residents of great wealth who now call it home. Photo/Allen Best

Wyoming has no income tax. Wyoming residents can also create dynasty trusts to shield property from federal estate taxes for up to 1,000 years. The state also has no real-estate transfer tax, no estate tax, no tax on out-of-state retirement income.

Real estate agents have taken to trumpeting the tax advantages of real estate investment in Jackson Hole. In July, Sotheby’s International Realty ran an advertisement headlined “Wild, wonderful Wyoming—the tax friendly state.”

News&Guide reporter Benjamin Graham’s story also delved into what he called artificial incentives that further encourage wealthy people to buy homes in Teton County. One is the local airport, which has a strong link for easy travel to the nation’s metropolitan areas. But then there’s this: spraying of mosquitoes, which makes summers far more pleasant.

Can Jackson Hole tweak regulations to create a better balance? One possibility is to require more affordable housing be built along with new residential development. The current rate is 25 percent. The regulation comes into play with the construction of homes larger than 2,500 square feet or a new subdivision.

“Whether the community is interested in looking at tweaking regulations and other artificial incentives remains to be seen, but the fact remains that residents have some control and ability to react to the phenomenon of wealthy people relocating here.”


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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5 Responses to Big mountains and wealth canyons in Jackson Hole

  1. rg says:

    Wow, a state that allows people to keep the money they earn and pass it down to their family. How evil.

  2. david says:

    There’s nothin’ evil ’bout low taxes, rg, and none was making that point. They were just talking about the consequences of subsidizing the lifestyles, via tax laws, of the trust-funders who visit, live and indeed invest in the community. Wyoming only ‘allows’ people to keep their money because they steal money from the extractive industry instead of asking residents to pay for services they kinda get for ‘free’. Then state has no problem raising taxes that have a greater negative impact on the working class like gas taxes. And the city & county love restrictive & costly land-use regulations, imported cheap labor, and conservation land-locks that advantage the wealthy at the expense of the working class. But none has to live in Jackson. So if the working class doesn’t like it, they are free to move.

    • rg says:

      -Wyoming is way down the list in gas tax levied by states: #32.
      -Extractive industries pay taxes for the products extracted from PUBLIC land.
      -Many of the folks labelled “trust funders” are actually people who have worked damn hard for their money.
      -I agree with what you have to say about Teton County policy: restrictive land use regulations, enabling Mexican illegals, locking up much of the County in conservation easements all make it difficult for working Americans to own a home here. I don’t see how raising my taxes will change these policies.
      -Mr. Best and Mr. Schecter are leftists who would love to see a state income tax and a real estate transfer tax, and more taxes in general.
      -You state, rightly, that if the working class doesn’t like it, they are free to move. If I can’t make it here, I will do just that. Teton County is not the last place on earth, and nobody owes me anything. I do not have the breathtaking sense of entitlement that seems to be characteristic of the folks who are moving here now.

  3. David says:

    rg: Thanks for the reply.

    Just a thought: You’re using PUBLIC services without paying for them. Don’t YOU have a “breathtaking sense of entitlement”? What did you do to deserve the handout? You get your lifestyle subsidized by the extractive industry and subsidized by every other American who doesn’t live in WY. Why should the extractive industry pay for the cost of government in Wyoming? Why not you? All those extractive workers and companies are putting money in your pocket when they pay for services that you use.

    Wyoming’s conservatives and liberals are like the folks in Alaska who get money from the Permanent Fund Dividend. Did they work for that money. NOPE. You & them are welfare queens – getting handouts from the state. It’s even more interesting when you’re a trust funder getting your lifestyle subsidized by low wage workers, the extractive industry, and the government. Those actions (subsidizing the wealthy) have the effect of increasing the cost of living (same as increasing taxes) on the working class (try finding housing in any resort community – even communities with higher taxes) while rewarding those whose wealth allows them to own second homes in Jackson which they let sit empty much of the year.

    Alaska should refund money to the extractive industry if it’s taking in more than it needs. None should be giving revenue to the government that the government doesn’t need, want, or will waste. Wyoming has taken in boat loads of money that it put into savings accounts. That’s money that could have gone to building Wyoming’s economy. Instead, it’s a bet on future failure – the failure of the state to diversify its economy and the failure of the state to spend what it has responsibly and its failure to limit the size of government.

    Gas taxes are low in Wyoming but they hit the working class harder than the trust funders (there are plenty of ’em in Jackson, even the working ones). The point was made about the impact of gas taxes on the working class (many commute long distances in Wyoming) compared to the wealthy: no point was made about the amount they pay compared to other states. Wyoming residents probably purchase more gas per capita. The fact is that the gas taxes impact the cost of goods and services too so the working class gets hit by gas taxes when they make purchases away from the pump.

    The broader point is that the giveaway to the wealthy, and much of the upper middle class, has a negative impact on the working class in Jackson just as it does throughout the USA. The working class has had enough and its one of the reasons that Trump won the election.

    Of course, the working class can demand more of their govt, their employers, their employer’s customers. They can also get a better education, a better job, another job – or move somewhere more compatible with their needs and wants. None should be giving a handout to the working class or the wealthy. Nor should tax laws put one class at a disadvantage to the point that they can’t make ends meet while the other class gets a subsidized lifestyle.

    As for Mr. Best and Mr. Schecter, they may be tax-loving liberals but I don’t see where that has any impact on your false equivalence with the statement “Wow, a state that allows people to keep the money they earn and pass it down to their family. How evil.” having anything to do with the reporting in the story above.

  4. Paul says:

    “Wow, a state that allows people to keep the money they earn and pass it down to their family. ”

    Let’s be clear, it’s a state and community, that allows RICH people to keep their money. Wyoming & Jackson go out of their way to keep poor people poor as does the government in almost every corner of the nation. Wyoming brags about its ‘low wage’ workforce to service companies. The have one of the lowest minimum wages in America. The Federal government makes it cheaper for employers to hire student visa workers than Americans. Land use policies are designed to keep property values high. You can’t buy a small plot of land in Teton County, plop a van on it and run utilities in. Jackson doesn’t want you car camping ’cause it will miss out on hotel sales tax revenue. It will offer up all the typical excuses (health & safety) for the ban but it’s all about keeping riff-raff out (the poor). Housing is locked up by employers for immigrant workers, not Americans or it’s designed for 90-day-wonders (dorm rooms). Making life harder for the poor and easier for the rich at every turn is par for the course in America.

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