For decades, Blaine County has relied on a two-pronged approach to attract workers to its central-Idaho sanctuary. There are the mountains, right out your back door. And the money, which topped what you could find in the rest of the state.  

Until recently. Blaine County’s average wage fell below the rest of the Idaho in 2018, dimming half of the regions time-tested draw, and threatening to cinch a tight labor market even tighter.  

At least the mountains are still here.  

But, with better jobs touting higher pay in cheaper markets, how long will those classifieds pitching a “mountain paradise” hold sway? And, with stone-broke workers scrounging for longer hours in multiple jobs to make ends meet, how long will our so-called “quality of place” keep locals local?  

“If the status quo continues, we’ll see more local businesses either closing entirely, or severely restricting their hours of operation because they do not have the workforce to perform entry-level jobs that are critical to operations,” Blaine County Housing Authority Executive Director Nathan Harvill said when the news broke in May. “With a shortage of workforce would come a change in the lifestyle to which many in Blaine County have become accustomed.”

Despite a booming economy and shriveling unemployment, the inflation-adjusted mean wage for employees in Blaine County fell to its lowest point since 2005 last year, per figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the rest of the state leapt ahead, surpassing Blaine County pay by nearly $1,000—$41,678 versus $40,742.  

(That just mean’s Idaho’s improving—not thriving; its median earnings still rate in the bottom five states nationwide, with the eighth highest percentage of workers at or below minimum wage.)

Here, area median income figures for 2019 released by the department of Housing and Urban Development are buoyed by the addition of non-wage earnings—investments, rental properties, etc. Things, in other words, the working class is less likely to realize. While those remain higher than the state, they’re in decline, too. In 2018, Blaine County stood at $76,100, compared to $67,200 statewide. But, adjusting for inflation using the Western Region Consumer Price Index, that number is falling sharply, and the rest of Idaho is catching up. Ten years ago, Blaine County’s area median income stood at $90,500 in 2019 dollars—16 percent higher than it is now. Back then, the state was $25,000 below it, at $65,500. 

“Most people aren’t going to get paid more to work here,” said David Patrie, outreach director for Sun Valley Economic Development. “Used to be that way. But, with the economic success in southern Idaho, that’s not the case anymore. Now, you’re looking at the same amount, or worse.”

SVED’s numbers are slightly more positive, showing per-capita wage growth of slightly less than 1 percent per year since the end of the Great Recession. Numbers differ, but they illustrate the same point, Patrie said: It’s not enough.

That’s because the cost of living isn’t fazed. Housing prices are charging forward. Across the county, the median price of a two-bedroom ran $1,700 a month in April, according to advertisements in the Idaho Mountain Express aggregated by the Blaine County Housing Authority. Per HUD standards, a household shouldn’t pay more than 30 percent of its income towards rent. Based on those guidelines, a family would need to make $68,000 to afford something at that price. In 2013, when the BCHA started recording classified data, the equivalent unit cost $925, adjusted for inflation—about 45 percent less. That’s affordable on $37,000 per year, a price your average worker could have easily covered.  

Other metrics tell a similar story. Prices compete with some of the country’s richest markets, while pay sits almost 22 percent below the national average. With roughly half of local jobs in the traditionally lower-paying service sector, workers are hard-pressed to break out—or, break even.

Slightly more than one in four local jobs are in the leisure and hospitality sector, while another 23.4 percent are in the food service and accommodation industry, according to federal figures. The first group made an average of $23,270 in 2018, about $900 less than a decade earlier, adjusting for inflation; the second averaged $22,490, about $300 less. Spread over a full year, that translates to $11.18 and $10.81 per hour, respectively.

It’s not minimum wage in Idaho—that’d be $7.25, the federal floor. But it’s not a living wage, either. A living wage is the amount someone has to make to support themselves and their dependents. So, it fluctuates based on your responsibilities. There, different groups come up with different estimates. They vary, sometimes wildly.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that a single person can get by on $12.37 an hour, $25,730 per year. A two-parent, two-child household? Both parents need to earn $16.49 per hour—a household total of $55,913.

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, pro-labor think tank, generates its own cost of living figures via a competing model. Its outlook is much starker. A single person can expect to spend $42,696 annually in Blaine County. A family of four faces $90,398, and that’s budgeting $1,016 per month in housing—a below-market deal. Lincoln, Twin Falls and Jerome counties all sit between $72,000 and $73,000. Money saved; money earned.

“The challenge is, in our tourist economy, everything is priced for tourists from San Fran and Seattle, but working folks here aren’t making the wages that people do in those major metropolitan areas,” said Brooke Pace McKenna, director of operations at The Hunger Coalition, a Bellevue-based food pantry and community center. “Their wages can’t compete with the cost of living.”

So, there’s the catch: half of Blaine County’s workforce depends on money from outside of the area—but, the money those jobs depend on pushes prices out of reach.

The cost of living means classic metrics often miss the point. Take poverty, based on the federal definition. The percentage of people in poverty is falling valley-wide—down to 8.5 percent in 2018 from 11.5 percent the year prior, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Hailey, though, it’s double that—17 percent.

What counts as poverty? The Department of Health and Human Services puts it at $12,490 annually for an individual, or $25,750 for a family of four. What’s that tell you in a county where the cost of food is 1.5 times higher than the national average, according to the Hunger Coalition? Not much.

The United Way, the venerable and wide-ranging nonprofit, uses a different metric to describe families over the poverty line, but fighting to make ends meet. It calls them “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” households—ALICE for short. ALICE households, added to those in outright poverty, equals the portion of the population struggling to meet basic needs. It calculates a “survival budget.” In Blaine County, it’s $22,728 for a single adult, jumping to $62,376 for a family of four. Thirty-eight percent of the population fell into that category during 2016, the most recent numbers available. In 2010, despite the recession, only 27 percent were included.

Econ 101 suggests a tight labor market might correct that. The numbers in this story are trailing at least a year—maybe we’ll see a boost in 2020, when new statistics start trickling out. When Patrie talks to employers, some tell him that they’re raising pay to attract new talent. Others, though, say they can’t—and without staff to cover time, they’re cutting hours or closing some days. That’s especially true now, in the pit of slack season.

There, a more balanced economy could provide employers with a cushion.

“I sense they don’t pay more because we have too seasonal an economy—and one at risk such as from fires in the heart of summer tourism and snowfall changes in winter,” said Aimee Christensen, executive director of the Sun Valley Institute, an organization that aims to advance economic, ecological and social resilience. “They have to plan for the lean times, even more than in areas that are more diversified.”

Patrie agrees.

“I’m sure seasonality factors in,” he said. “During the summer, it looks like people are making a ton of money. Right now, they’re bleeding it. We’re not unique, when it comes to a resort area. Maybe we’re a little more expensive. Maybe our wages are a little lower. But as far as a living wage goes, we’re struggling to hit targets.

“A well-balanced life means not meaning having to choose between transportation and healthcare and nutrition and housing. If people don’t have to make those choices—that’s pretty close to a living wage. It’s not a question of if we can get there. It’s a question of how do we do it. Because, we need to do it.”

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