Mixed Feelings on the U.S. Economy Remain
Despite job growth and cooling inflation, many believe the financial outlook is bleak
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Jan 01, 2024
Teton County School District teacher Lilly Willa said better and less expensive housing she secured in May has made a big difference in her personal finances. (Courtesy photo from Lilly Willa)
By K.L. McQuaid
Special to the Wyoming Truth
By many key measurements, the U.S. economy has rebounded over the past year.
Job growth has remained strong, inflation has melted like Yellowstone snow in May, interest rates are showing signs of dropping and consumer spending has held steady in the face of higher prices and stubborn pessimism about individual finances and the nation’s economic health.
In Wyoming, though, feelings remain mixed.
Consumer sentiments are somewhat improved from the second half of 2022, when the Wyoming Truth published “The Rising Cost of Everything,” a series highlighting struggles with higher food prices, increased gasoline costs, inflated rents and climbing mortgage interest rates, to name a few.
In nearly three-dozen stories, the award-winning series depicted Wyoming residents grappling with rising expenses that meant sacrificing holiday offerings, foregoing home ownership, slowed sales, reduced business profits, longer work hours and deferred dreams.
The Wyoming Truth recently revisited a few of those same people to learn whether their individual economies have improved, gotten worse or remained unchanged.
‘Overall, it’s better’
In 2022, Lilly Willa, a Teton County secondary education language teacher, lived with her two children in a 350-square-foot cottage in Jackson Hole after moving from Washington state.
Despite the residence’s small size, the California native and single mother often battled to pay her rent each month, the result of the county’s extremely tight and expensive housing market. Doing the family’s laundry meant a trip to town.
“It was definitely a lesson in prioritizing,” Willa, 34, said.
The high cost of renting – Wyoming residents have, on average, seen double-digit spikes in housing costs since 2021 – drove Willa to consider moving to another state.
Fortuitously, Willa secured an apartment owned by the Teton County School District in May.
Her new quarters measure nearly three times the size of her old place. For the first time in three years, Willa has her own bedroom. Her commute is shorter, and the apartment has its own washer and dryer.
Best of all, she pays less in rent than she did previously.
“It was such a blessing; I was so excited and so thankful,” Willa said. “Overall, it’s better for me now because of my housing situation. Life is a lot less stressful.”
Improving economic data
Willa has reasons to be more optimistic.
Nationwide statistics show that inflation cooled to 2.6% in November – down from a high of 9.1% in June 2022.
At the same time, interest rate hikes aimed at curbing inflation will probably go no higher. Since mid-2022, the Federal Reserve Bank has raised rates to a 22-year high of 5.25%, translating into consumer borrowing costs of about 7.5% to 8.5%.
Many economists say if inflation remains tamed, interest rates will likely be cut to 4.6% by the end of 2024.
The job market, too, has remained robust. Last month, employers added 199,000 new jobs, which helped keep the unemployment rate at a historically low 3.7%. That continued hiring has come even as wages outpaced inflation in the second half of the year.
As a result, the Federal Reserve now believes that core inflation will dip to 2.4% next year and to 2.0% in 2026.
‘I’m not seeing it’
Even so, pessimism persists. In a November Gallup poll, over 70% of those surveyed said the economy was worsening.
Garth Wessell is among them.
“I’m not seeing it,” Wessell, 36, said of recent economic gains. “I’m continuing to see literally everything go up. It’s a tough economy.”
Wessell, who owned and operated the Sagebrush Tattoo Co. in Laramie from 2019 until earlier this year, moved to Washington state in July for his wife’s job. He has since established the Pine Needle Tattoo Co. in Tumwater.
“My bills are double what they were in Wyoming,” Wessel said. “The cost of [tattooing] supplies, for instance, continues to go up.”
Wessel is also paying more for rent than he did in Wyoming, and he spent about $25,000 to open his new shop – expenses he doesn’t expect to recoup for five years.
Falling gas prices have helped him make ends meet, he said.
“I’m paying my bills every month, I just have to continue to find ways to do things cheaper,” he said.
Willa, too, still struggles with higher food costs and makes personal sacrifices despite her rent savings. She cut back significantly on Christmas presents for her 10-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son this year, she said.
To shave her grocery bill, Willa makes a two-and-a-half hour drive every few months.
“I go to Idaho Falls, because I can save money,” she said. “It’s so worth it.”
To buffer her personal finances, Willa worked three jobs last summer while her children visited her parents.
“I had just two days off in six weeks,” she said. “I felt I had to do it. Car insurance, my phone – everything is more expensive. But God has always provided for us, and I just do the best I can.”