Missoula may feel like it’s getting increasingly unaffordable for the average earner, with 2019 seeing median home prices top $300,000 for the first time, while 1,000 more people used the Missoula Food Bank than the year before.
In terms of income inequality, specifically measured by the divide between the top 1% of earners and the bottom 99%, Missoula ranks 33rd most unequal in the nation, higher than Bozeman, Seattle or Portland, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
But recently published data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis note Jackson Hole, Wyoming, tops the list of unequal metro areas and average income per person, and the income gap is most apparent in Teton County. The county has been considered to be the most unequal place in America since the early 2000s, with the average earner in the top 1% earning more than 132 times that of the average earner in the bottom 99%.
In contrast, Missoula's top outdoes the bottom by about 31 times.
While some people have voiced concern that increased tourism in Missoula could be turning the city into a resort town like Jackson Hole, Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said Missoula isn’t even close.
“If I were to describe Missoula, I would never mention Jackson Hole in the same breath. There’s not many similarities there," he said. "The majority of income in Jackson Hole is made elsewhere, while in Missoula it's the opposite. Basically all the data says is the rich like to live in one place."
In a college town like Missoula, Barkey said it’s probably less that the rich are getting richer, or that there’s an influx of wealth, but more so that the bottom 99% is lower than average and dropping.
“Just because you have unequal income doesn't necessarily mean it's all coming from the top,” Barkey said. “College students typically don’t make very much money, but they live here for more than six months of the year, so they are counted as residents. Then you’ve got a surplus of college educated people, and that tends to depress wages just on supply and demand. So a lot of that dispersion is pushing down the bottom 99% rather than pushing up the top 1%.”
And data show the poorer in Missoula are in fact getting poorer. As previously reported by the Missoulian, the UM BBER found that renters in Missoula have seen nearly a 5% drop in wages. And at the same time, homeowners saw nearly 18% growth in incomes, widening the affordable housing gap.
Barkey said one area of research he is interested in and is seeing more of is looking at income inequality by geography. He said while there's a growing divide between the rich and the poor in a given area, the divide between wealthy areas and poorer areas is growing even more rapidly.
"I think that's a little bit of what comes out of the data. Jackson Hole is a much richer area than Missoula," he said. "We know we have income inequality, and it's implied we ought to do something about it, and so there’s always more taxes, but it’s a little less clear what to do when you see there’s actually regions that are pulling away from the rest of the country. So what do we do about that? Build walls or something?"