Inequality In The Equality State: Disparities Abound In Wyoming's Renowned Ski Town

Jan 9, 2015

A rundown trailer home just a stone’s throw from Jackson’s swanky town square.
Credit Aaron Schrank

    

Income and wealth disparities in the U.S. are the most pronounced they’ve been in decades. Perhaps nowhere is the gap between luxury and poverty more apparent than in Jackson. The small ski town sits in the county with the highest average income in the country. But it’s also home to a growing number of Mexican immigrants who come to work in Jackson’s tourism economy. Teton County residents boast a median household income of $72,000, but for immigrant households, it’s just $26,000. That inequity has repercussions for Jackson's youth.

On the bunny slope at Snow King Ski Resort in Jackson, a seasoned instructor shows a group of beginners some basic maneuvers. 10-year-old Sahir Romero says he’s learning new tricks, but finds some easier than others.

“One of the tricks I find challenging is putting is straight—the skis, without doing a pizza,” says Sahir. “And one of the moves I like to do is do the pizza.”

Skiers get their paperwork squared away with Snow King ski instructors and volunteers with the Doug Coombs Foundation—the nonprofit that provides all-inclusive ski packages for low-income kids.
Credit Aaron Schrank

Sahir is one of about 100 kids enjoying his hometown’s signature sport today thanks to a program that provides gear, ski school and lift passes to low-income kids. Anyone who qualifies for free lunch at school—based on income—is eligible. All the participants happen to be Latino. The program is the Doug Coombs Foundation, named for an extreme skier who called Jackson home. His widow, founder Emily Coombs, says skiing is why she moved to Jackson.

“So it’s a big part of people’s lives here, and most people that I know do ski,” Coombs says. “And I noticed that there were no Latino children skiing, there were no Latino adults skiing, and I wanted to change that.”

Without this program, parents would have to shell out nearly $1,000 for their kids to ski every Saturday like this. Maria Vargas has two kids in the program. She works as a hotel housekeeper and lives with her family of four in a 2-bedroom cabin. She says it’s difficult to afford any activities for her kids, let alone skiing.  

Yamileth Barrera and Michelle Vargas, two skiers in the Doug Coombs program, prepare to take another run down Snow King.
Credit Aaron Schrank

“With how much we get paid and the rent—it’s over the top,” says Vargas. “It doesn’t give us extra money to put our kids in activities. So, it seems like we have to work a lot, an extra shift for them to do something.”

Housing here costs 50 percent more than it does in the rest of Wyoming—and the many immigrant parents who earn low wages cleaning hotel rooms or maintaining mansions have time to do little else.

Jackson Hole Middle School’s assistant principal Matt Hoelscher says that impacts students here.

“A lot of our Hispanic parents are working multiple jobs and are not available—maybe do not have the language background—in order to help them with their homework or to truly support them with education outside of the school,” Hoelscher says.

This middle school is the only one in the district—and more than one-third of the kids sitting in the lunchroom are Latino. Thirty years ago, almost no Latinos lived in Jackson Hole. As of 2010, Jackson’s population is 28 percent Latino—thanks largely to Mexican immigration. 

Emily Coombs with her son, David. Emily’s organization is named the Doug Coombs Foundation, after her late husband—an extreme skier who lived in Jackson. Doug died in 2006, when David was just 2.
Credit Aaron Schrank

There’s a clear achievement gap between Latino and non-Latino students. On a recent state test, 93 percent of white 8th graders scored proficient or advanced in math, compared with 67 percent of Latinos. But Instructional Coach Michelle Rooks says that gap shows signs of shrinking under the new Common Core standards.

“We used to make work easier for kids that weren’t achieving, because we wanted them to feel good about themselves and be able to do something, right?,” What we’re finding is that when we put work in front of kids that is meaningful and complex and then we support them in being able to do that work, all of the sudden we’re seeing kids be able to reenvision—like—'what is my future.'"

Rooks says her low-income students face unique challenges. She recalls one girl who was exhausted in class, who mentioned she’d gotten up at 5 a.m. that morning. When Rooks told her to sleep in, the student explained that five was when her “bed shift” ended—every morning.

“She got a bed from 11 to 5—and at 11 she kicked somebody out of the bed—and at 5 somebody came home from work and took the bed,” says Rooks. “That bed was used 24 hours a day. It just was the first time that I realized that poverty or doing what you need to do to live in this community means something that I couldn’t even imagine.”

A group of skiiers get ready to get on the ski lift at Snow King. All of the participants in the Doug Coombs ski program are Latino kids in Jackson.
Credit Aaron Schrank

Johnathan Schechter, founder and executive director of the Charture Institute—a Jackson-based think tank—says what’s happening with income and wealth distribution in Jackson is happening around the country—it’s just more pronounced here.  

“It may be more extreme at the top,” says Schechter. “It may be a little bit more extreme at the bottom—and therefore the gap is going to be a little larger. But we are a reflection of a broader pattern in the nation if not in the word.”

In Teton County, 2012 tax returns show that 8 percent of households earned 90 percent of the income. Schechter says inequality is more extreme here because the town’s tourism economy (and Wyoming’s lack of a state income tax) make Jackson a playground for the mega-rich, but also attractive to the working poor.

“It’s true whether you’re one of the 15 wealthiest people in America or you’re living 12 people to a 2-bedroom trailer,” Schechter says. “There’s something about the place that’s bringing you here.”

To see those kids doing something new, something like slicing on two sticks. Well, I never saw that in Mexico.

Mauro and Angelina Lira moved to Jackson 11 years ago. Like so many Latino families in Jackson, they immigrated from Tlaxcala, Mexico. Mauro says they came “looking for a new adventure.” As he admires his children skiing the Snow King slope, it seems like maybe he’s found it.

“To see those kids doing something new, something like slicing on two sticks. Well, I never saw that in Mexico,” Lira says.

But it isn’t easy for the the Liras to live here. They both work at one of the tourist shops in town—and they pay twelve-hundred a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

“Two really, really small bedrooms,” Lira says.

Their four children sleep on two bunk beds in one room—and the couple share the other.

“And we have just a normal bed and [bit of] space to walk on it. Like, if somebody drops something, you can’t walk anymore,” says Lira. “But we have a ceiling, we have food, we have health and we are happy.”

It’s a struggle just to scrape by in this high-priced resort town—but the Liras say it’s worth it. They’re confident that someday, their efforts here with pay off in lives of their kids.