- The Federal Reserve’s annual meeting of investors, economists, and government representatives kicks off Thursday in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
- The Jackson, Wyoming, metropolitan area is the most unequal place in the US, according to a 2018 report published by the Economic Policy Institute.
- In the Western resort town, the average income of the richest 1% is more than $US16.1 million, while the average income of the remaining 99% is $US122,447.
- That means that Jackson’s wealthiest inhabitants make, on average, 132 times as much as everyone else in the metro area.
- I recently spent three days in the area, and I didn’t see the obvious signs of wealth inequality that I’d been expecting, largely because even the remaining 99% are earning well over the statewide median.
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In the Jackson metro area, which encompasses Teton County in Wyoming and Teton County in Idaho, the wealthiest residents make, on average, 132 times as much as everyone else: The average income of the 1% is more than $US16.1 million, and the average income of the bottom 99% is $US122,447.
The area also plays host to the annual economic symposium of the Federal Reserve, where about 120 investors, economists, financial organisations, and US government representatives meet to discuss economic policy. This year, the meeting kicks off on August 22 and runs through August 24.
I recently spent three days in the Wyoming side of the Jackson metro area. Here’s what it looks like in the most unequal place in America.
Andy Kiersz contributed reporting.
Jackson is a resort town in northwestern Wyoming with a population of about 10,400 people. The Jackson metropolitan area, which includes part of Idaho, is the most unequal place in the US, according to a 2018 report published by the Economic Policy Institute.
In the Western resort town, the wealthy make, on average, 132 times as much as everyone else, according to the EPI report.
The average income of the richest 1% is more than $US16.1 million, while the average income of the bottom 99% is $US122,447, the report found.
In the report, researchers looked at 2015 tax-return data to analyse the average income of the top 1% and the bottom 99% of a population, broken down by state, metropolitan area, and county.
Compared with the commonly used Gini coefficient measure of inequality, EPI’s measure captures very high incomes better because, as the report said, “it represents all the taxable income people earn in market transactions, such as the income earned from working for a wage or salary at a job, through interest on a savings account, or from selling a financial asset for more than its purchase cost (a capital gain).”
On a recent July weekend, I drove down to spend a few days in Jackson and get a feel for what it’s like in the most unequal place in the country.
I drove down from Montana, passing through Idaho and the iconic Grand Teton mountain range to get to Jackson.
Jackson sits in the middle of the Jackson Hole valley, which is between two mountain ranges: the Teton range and the Gros Ventre range.
At least 12 peaks in the Teton range reach over 12,000 feet.
Jackson Hole is known for its world-class skiing.
While I always knew of Jackson as a skiing destination, I quickly realised that it can’t be written off as a summer destination.
In fact, more people visit in the summertime than in the winter, Kate Sollitt, the executive director of the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, told me.
“Summertime is very busy in Jackson, as we are the gateway to two national parks,” Sollitt said.
When I visited, the streets of Jackson were brimming with tourists sightseeing, shopping, eating, and drinking. Traffic through the centre of town at times rivaled that of New York City, where I live.
Jackson has come a long way from its origins as a “little quaint cow town,” as Jane Golliher, a local rancher, put it.
“We’ve seen it change from a nice little quaint cow town to millionaires,” Golliher told me. “And now billionaires are coming in buying out the millionaires.”
Jackson’s downtown area embraces its Western charm.
Marking each corner of the town square are four elk-antler arches, which make for popular photo ops.
One shop sells hundreds of cowboy hats in varying colours and styles.
Many of Jackson’s shops, such as the Jackson Hole Jewellery Company and Workshop, sell locally made products.
The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is an iconic cowboy-themed tavern in the heart of town. It has real saddles for bar stools.
When I went on a Saturday night, I paid a $US5 cover charge and my cocktail was about $US10, which seemed a bit pricey for Wyoming but not at all outrageous compared with the New York City prices I’ve gotten used to.
The town centre has breweries, restaurants, ice-cream shops, gift shops, and more.
On my first evening in town, I ate at a restaurant called Thai Plate while sitting outside and enjoying a live music performance from an adjacent bar.
Jackson Hole real estate doesn’t come cheap. The average price of a home in Jackson Hole is $US1.62 million, according to Ed Liebzeit of Jackson Hole Sotheby’s International Realty.
A three-bedroom home in Jackson Hole listed for $US1.7 million has 1,771 square feet of living space and sits on just under an acre of land.
The high end of the housing market is growing faster than ever, with more than 30 homes currently listed for $US10 million or more in Jackson Hole, Liebzeit said.
One of these is a 280-acre ranch listed for $US80 million that comes with a 7,984-square-foot main house and a guest house.
It’s the most expensive property currently listed for sale in Jackson Hole, according to Liebzeit.
Many wealthy people buying homes in the area either come from Silicon Valley or are Wall Street types who work in private equity and venture capital, Liebzeit said.
Many celebrities and high-profile people have also bought homes in Jackson Hole.
Harrison Ford, Sandra Bullock, the Walmart heiress Christy Walton, and former Vice President Dick Cheney have all owned homes in the area.
Wealthy Americans may be drawn to Jackson for its tax benefits as well as its natural beauty.
Liebzeit calls Wyoming “the most tax-friendly state in the country” because it has no personal or corporate income tax and no estate or inheritance tax.
Each year, the Jackson Hole area plays host to the Federal Reserve’s economic symposium, where investors, economists, financial organisations, and US government representatives meet to discuss economic policy.
Each year, about 120 people attend the event, which is hosted by the Kansas City Federal Reserve.
In a press release, the Kansas City Fed wrote that “the event is known as one of the longest-standing central banking conferences, bringing together economists, financial market participants, academics, U.S. government representatives, and news media to discuss key long-term policy issues of mutual concern.”
This year, the symposium is titled “Challenges for Monetary Policy.”
The entire financial sector has its eyes on what announcements and decisions the central bankers will make, especially Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who speaks Friday.
The town of Jackson is a short drive from two national parks.
Grand Teton National Park is less than 10 minutes from the town of Jackson. Yellowstone National Park is about a 40-minute drive.
At the national parks, visitors can go camping, hiking, fishing, biking, boating, climbing, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Visitors can also book guided trips and wildlife safaris.
The Jackson metro area is served by Jackson Hole Airport in Grand Teton National Park.
American, Delta, and United Airlines fly in and out of Jackson Hole Airport year-round, and Frontier Airlines offers direct flights between Jackson Hole and Denver in the summertime.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort isn’t just a skiing destination. In the summer months, it offers numerous activities for visitors, from rides on the ski lifts and trams to mountain biking and outdoor concerts.
A ride on the resort’s aerial tram, which climbs 4,139 vertical feet to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, at an elevation of 10,450 feet, costs $US37 online or $US44 in person.
For those who want to go horseback riding, try their hand working with cattle, and experience life on a Western ranch, dude ranches are an important part of Jackson Hole culture.
At a dude ranch, or guest ranch, people can sleep in cabins or lodges, ride horses, and get a taste of modern cowboy life.
Gros Ventre River Ranch, a dude ranch in Kelly, Wyoming, hosts 30 to 40 guests per week, only during the summer months.
Guests can book stays at the ranch for only six nights, from Sunday to Saturday. They can choose among four lodges, four cabins, and a multibedroom homestead.
Rates start at $US2,170 per person for six nights, which comes out to about $US362 per night, with all meals and activities included. Guests at the ranch can go horseback riding, fly fishing, or swimming in a nearby pond, or they can play games and relax in the main lodge.
On the other end of the spectrum, ultra-wealthy visitors to Jackson Hole can stay at luxury resorts like Amangani, where a night’s stay will cost you between $US975 and $US2,100.
I took a tour of Amangani and found that its tailored outdoor activities, wellness amenities, and secluded location on a private mountain road in the least populated state in America gives affluent travellers the privacy and unique experience they crave.
Trying to book a hotel in Jackson made me realise how inaccessible the town is to many tourists.
The 1% might stay at places like Amangani – but when I, a member of the 99%, was looking for a place to stay, I found that a room at the Motel 6 on the outskirts of town cost more than $US200 per night. And it was completely booked.
I ended up at the second-cheapest option, the Super 8, for $US245 per night.
After seeing so many signs of wealth in Jackson and not many obvious signs of its vast inequality, I wondered where the other 99% lived.
Liebzeit of Jackson Hole Sotheby’s International Realty told me that the communities of Alpine, Wyoming, and Victor, Idaho, were much more affordable towns where some of the 99% live.
They’re about 30 to 35 minutes away, and a bus service connects them to Jackson, Liebzeit said.
Even though I spent three days in the most unequal place in America, I have to say that spending time in Jackson certainly doesn’t leave you feeling like that’s the case.
The restaurants and shops in town were stylised, polished, and catering to wealthy residents and tourists; the homes were beautiful and well maintained; and tourist amenities like Jackson Hole Mountain Resort were pristine.
Ultimately, I didn’t encounter the glaring signs of wealth inequality that I had been expecting to see in Jackson. That can largely be attributed to the fact that even the bottom 99% are earning well over the statewide median.
Though the income gap in Jackson is extreme, the spectrum is skewed extremely high because of just how rich the area’s 1% are, with an average income of more than $US16.1 million.
The average income of the metro area’s bottom 99%, on the other hand – $US122,447 – is still almost double the state of Wyoming’s average income of $US62,593.
So while Jackson is technically the most unequal place in America, as far as I could tell, it’s hardly a typical example of stark inequality.
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