In Wyoming, Vast Open Spaces Meet Extreme Gaps Between Rich and Poor

The story of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, illustrates the class tensions that arise when an idealized vision of life close to nature butts up against the realities of wealth, privilege, and social inequality.

2 minute read

March 26, 2020, 11:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

Jackson Hole

SeeJH / YouTube

Billionaire Wilderness is new book by Yale sociologist Justin Farrell that examines the extreme inequality in Teton County in Wyoming, the county with the highest per capita income in the United States.

People are drawn to the area because of its access to spectacular open spaces, but the bulk of land in the county, 97 percent, is public land, leaving small tracts available for development. The tourism industry has also resulted in a large number of low-paid service workers not able to live in Jackson Hole, where many of these jobs are located.

The reasons behind the income inequality in Teton County are varied. For one, Wyoming does not have income tax and property taxes are low, a draw for wealthy individuals from other states. And while philanthropy by the area’s well-off residents is robust, those donations tend to go to arts and conservation causes.

"That is a particular dilemma in Wyoming, where minimal taxes mean the state has extremely limited public funds. Private donations bankroll a lot of services in the county, such as housing assistance or mental-health counseling ('buzzkill issues,' as Farrell puts it)," writes Heather Hansman.

Through a series of interviews, Farrell discovers that the area’s wealthy seem largely unaware of the class discrepancies around them and the struggles of the people behind the tourism industry.

"After outlining the conflicting interests between conservation and growth, affordable housing and preservation, Farrell concludes that we can’t have it all. This has always been a region that was developed according to the interests of the ultrarich, and it’s becoming more apparent who really gets to live out a western fantasy," says Hansman.

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