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More than 25% of full-time Wyoming workers make below $15/hour. It's worse elsewhere in the West.

Gas Pumps
David Gales
/
Adobe Stock
The average gas price in Wyoming as of July is $4.18 per gallon, according to AAA.

The Biden Administration is trying to curb inflation as people grapple with the increased costs of basic expenses. Consumer prices jumped 8.5 percent in July compared to a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from June’s numbers, but some goods and services remain expensive.

At the same time, Wyomingites and other Westerners are also struggling with another economic trend: stagnant wage growth.

A living wage is defined as what a worker needs to make to afford necessities. In nearly every county in Wyoming, that number hovers around $15 an hour, according to a calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“That is the bare bones of paying your rent, paying your utilities, making sure you have childcare covered for, paying [for] your groceries,” said Micah Richardson of the Wyoming Community Foundation.

However, over 25 percent of full-time Wyoming workers make less than that basic living rate of $15 an hour, according to a new report published by the foundation. The report also looks at gender inequality, childcare costs, and other factors that limit economic mobility.

“So it's even that much harder for these families and individuals to figure out how in the world they are going to make ends meet,” Richardson said.

The state minimum wage is set at $5.15 an hour. That’s the lowest rate in the country and below the federal baseline of $7.25.

Richardson said some employers are paying people an annual salary that puts them in poverty. Raising the state minimum wage to just $10 an hour would benefit more than 18,000 Wyoming residents, the report found.

“[It] at least gives us a base, like a minimum base for what we can be doing for our neighbors and friends in Wyoming,” Richardson said.

But Wyoming is not alone. Another study released earlier this year by Oxfam America calculated the percentage of all workers (including part-time individuals and those under 18) that make under $15 an hour.

In the Mountain West, only Colorado had a lower percentage than Wyoming of people earning less than $15 an hour. New Mexico, Nevada, Montana and Idaho all fared much worse, while Utah and Arizona were at similar levels.

These trends are occurring as inequality also continues to grow. The top one percent of families earn 21 percent of the income in the U.S., according to the Economic Policy Institute. Ultra-wealthy Teton County, Wyo., is the most unequal county in the country.

Some federal lawmakers have tried to raise minimum wages in recent years, but opponents argue it could worsen unemployment and hurt small businesses. A bill that would have raised the Cowboy State’s minimum wage to $15 an hour failed in the state legislature last year.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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