Sharon Dohse hears the same thing whenever someone new steps into her office.
“The first thing they say when I greet them is, ‘I shouldn’t be here,’” said the client resource manager at The Hunger Coalition, a Bellevue-based food pantry. “If you want a picture of our average client, look in a mirror. They’re like you and me, and they never thought they’d be walking through our doors.”
Dohse first worked at The Hunger Coalition 2009. She came on full-time in 2011, as the Great Recession continued to beat the battlements of Blaine County’s economy. Back then, people came looking for jobs. They were dredging for hours, as banks inched in on their underwater homes.
Not the case anymore. People have all the work they can handle. Now, there just aren’t not enough hours in the day to work as much as they need.
More and more of Dohse’s clientele have multiple jobs. They have families, dreams of the brass ring and the white picket fence. Yet they’re flagging, falling behind. As the national economy steams ahead, these are people left in its wake.
“You think you’ve done everything right,” Dohse said. “You grew up in a middle-class home, you found work, but you can’t keep up. These are resourceful people. They’re working hard. I meet them, and think, ‘I would go to war with you.’ But circumstances are what they are, and they find themselves here.”
Those circumstances: rampant housing costs, stagnant wages, food prices that rate eighth highest nationwide. The markets by which the upper classes realize gains—such as real estate and the stock market—have little meaning to workers falling through the economic cracks in the shadow of Sun Valley.
“We have two types of residents,” Sun Valley Economic Development Outreach Director David Patrie said at the group’s third-quarter member forum in September. “We have those who derive income from outside the county—they could be trust-funders, or they could work remotely for Google. Our economy works pretty well for those folks. Then, we’ve got people who depend on Blaine County to make a living. It’s not working as well for them.”
Gaps in income, in education, in access to what brings people to this valley to begin with. Gaps by race, by place, by gender. In Blaine County’s highly seasonal tourist economy, the split Patrie described runs deep, and it echoes everywhere.
“Healthy communities have fewer gaps,” he said. “If we want to keep what we have—a beautiful place, with a real soul, and not just become ski-Disneyland—we need to pay attention to all of our people.
“We’ve got to walk and chew gum at the same time. We’ve got to do it all.”
Those divisions—to borrow from Ketchum’s laureate Hemingway, the what it means “to have and have not”—are starker here than most other places in the United States. It’s highlighted by every $10 million house on the market and $100,000 car on the street. It’s less visible, but still lurking in every grocery run to Twin Falls, and the tanks of gas to get there.
Here, the bottom 99 percent of earners average $77,353 per year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a traditionally pro-labor think tank. The top 1 percent makes $3.62 million—46.8 times more. That made Blaine County the most unequal in Idaho, and 27th in the nation during 2015, according to a report published last year. San Francisco and Marin County, Calif., check in at 25 and 26.
Turns out—unsurprisingly—ski towns have a thing for inequality. Teton, Wyo., is the most disparate county in the country, and the Jackson metro area—which also spills into Idaho—is the most unequal city. Flush with cash out of Silicon Valley, Teton’s 1 percent averages $16.2 million, 132 times more than the mean of the rest. Pitkin, Colo. (Aspen), San Miguel, Colo. (Telluride), and Carroll, N.H. (Mt. Washington/Bretton Woods), also have higher ratios than Blaine County.
Whether you view it as a good thing or a bad thing, that ratio is a litmus test. Few see it as a fundamentally neutral figure.
“Look at who lives here,” said County Commissioner Jacob Greenberg, an ex-officio member on SVED’s board. “The spread between people who have a bunch, and people who don’t—it’s huge. You’ve got billionaires, and you’ve got people washing dishes. There’s a huge disparity.
“But, what’s the relationship? Is it relevant to your daily life?”
Depends where you look and whom you ask. Blaine County’s economy is largely built on money earned outside of it. And, many of jobs you’ll find locally are geared towards serving that wealth. About half of all employees work in the leisure and hospitality or food service and accommodation sectors, according to 2018 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. On balance, those positions pay better than Idaho’s minimum wage, but not all that much—around $23,000 per year, between $10 and $11 per hour. (For more on wages, see Page 14.)
Companies follow the money—and the margins, too.
“The people who are in business for profit put a lot of effort into catering towards wealth,” Patrie said. “It’s more profitable, and it’s safer—what are you going to do?”
So: Is a builder going to put up five middle-income homes chasing a 15 percent return, or one well-appointed mansion the same size for 30 percent? A restaurant needs to sell a lot of $2 Rainier beer to catch the profit on a $100 cabernet.
“Our economy provides more opportunities for the super-wealthy, at the expense of services to everyone else,” Patrie said. “We don’t have the capacity for everything. You’re going to get a lot of fancy restaurants trying for high-end bottles. Whereas, I haven’t seen a new Lefty’s open up in a while.”
Meanwhile, everyday prices drift towards what the top end can pay. Recently, strong markets helped raise that ceiling, and the cost of living followed close behind.
In fiscal 2019, the median rent on a two-bedroom unit was no longer affordable on a median household’s income, according to advertisements in the Idaho Mountain Express aggregated by the Blaine County Housing Authority. The April advertised price for one of those units hit $1,700—which, by federal guidelines, you’d need about $68,000 a year to afford. Just a year earlier, it cost $1,422—affordable on just under $57,000.
When the Housing Authority started compiling rents in 2013—around the time Blaine County was fully emerging from the recessionary cloud—a similar place would have cost $925, adjusting for inflation. That’s about a 45 percent difference between then and now—nearly 10 times the growth rate of per capita wages during that time.
Food prices, always high, continue to rise, too. Blaine County is the eighth most expensive place in the nation to buy a meal, according to hunger-relief group Feeding America. A weekly market basket of groceries—basically, a standardized version of a household shopping list—cost $225.62 for a family of four at last count in 2017, 1.5 times more than the national average. That adds up to $11,700 per year, nearly 30 percent of a worker’s median wage.
The federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—food stamps—paid a maximum of $1.86 per meal at that time, $2.72 short of what it costs in Blaine County. Even those who would qualify for the program needed to cover 60 percent of food costs themselves.
No surprise then that one in five residents goes to The Hunger Coalition for help, according to spokeswoman Kristin McMahon. And, based on data from the United Way, the organization estimates that 38 percent of the local population is one crisis away from needing help to put a meal on the table.
Under those pressures, people can usually handle one extra hit, Dohse finds. The car needs a new transmission. The kid needs braces, or something more serious. Some can take two—a medical issue, time off of work. But they add up. Nearly a quarter of households earning less than $50,000 don’t have health insurance, according to Sun Valley Economic Development. Those people are a bad scan away from bankruptcy. One more rent hike may be one too many.
In September, Dohse saw 102 new clients. They were all seeking food assistance, but 28 said housing was the biggest problem they faced. Thirty-six said medical bills.
“It takes a lot for people to walk through our doors,” Dohse said. “I really think they come one or two times before accepting help. It’s not about putting a few vegetables on your table. It’s about being able to sleep well at night, and being able to wake up the next day and do it all over again.”
The Hunger Coalition is just one group working to fight the stigma clouding those struggling to make ends meet in Blaine County. Changing that attitude could go a long way, in a lot of different areas.
That’s not the millionaires’ fault, according to Director of Operations Brooke Pace McKenna. But, in order to make big changes, the entire county needs to pull on the same rope, in the same direction.
“We’re not blaming those with resources or tourists for creating the issues we see here in Blaine County,” McKenna said. “However, if someone finds themselves trying to block a community-led solution to the root causes of those issues in order to protect their own self-interests, then they have to take some responsibility for perpetuating them. We’re never going to see change until we can agree that not everyone is experiencing the same wealth, health and opportunities to succeed.”
Blaine County will always be a tourist economy. We’re not getting a Chobani, like Twin Falls. The labor, the land, the political and personal will—it’s just not there, Greenberg said.
But Blaine County doesn’t need a Chobani to be a more inclusive economy, according to Patrie. First, it needs to agree on a more inclusive mindset—and soon.
“I’m afraid we’re losing our community, and becoming a place that’s only for the rich, instead of a place where people can work and live,” he said. “There’s an element of elitism around here. A lot of our issues come from people not wanting anything to change, ever. But what is NIMBYism? It’s an attitude—a fear of the unknown. I don’t know those people, so they don’t belong in my neighborhood.
“If we can change that, we’re making progress.”