A Tale of Two Coachellas: Wealth Inequality and the American Dream

Coachella has once again come and gone, taking with it the ever-flattering flower crown Snapchat filter. I used to think of Coachella goers as indie kids in a Cameron Crowe movie, braving the desert for the sake of their music. Now that I’m reaching the wise twilight years of mid-millennialism, Coachella is no longer the romantic oasis I’d thought it once was, but that certainly hasn’t deterred everyone else. What started as a way for Pearl Jam to protest Ticketmaster’s hold on music venues has since morphed into a capitalist conglomerate’s wet dream — 2015’s two Coachella events broke its own revenue records and grossed over $84 million.

Tickets to each weekend event this year were $399, and $899 if you considered yourself a VIP. If you wanted to, for $1124 you could eat a 4 course meal prepared by chefs in a rose garden, because I suppose if you can afford it, why would you eat a 4 course meal next to the porta-potties?

Accommodations ranged in varying degrees of comfort, from $99 to sleep in your own car, to an astonishing $7,000 to glamp. Every year, a seemingly endless smorgasbord of dining and entertainment options abound, available to those who pay. Oh yeah, and there’s music.

But some might be surprised to learn that life continues after Coachella ends, and it doesn’t just include preparing for next year’s festival. Just outside of the small campground radius where The Black Keys and Tupac’s hologram rubbed elbows (I know, it’s a figure of speech) are several communities that experience increasing poverty each year.

The 346,000 plus individuals that make up Coachella Valley live around nine major cities, and the wealth disparity among them is staggering.

According to the 2014 Annual Coachella Valley Economic Report, Coachella proper, with a population of roughly 40,000 had a total income of $450 million, while Palm Springs of a nearly equal population size brought in a total income of $1.6 billion, over 3.5 times that of Coachella’s. The median household income in Desert Hot Springs was $32,548, while the median income in Indian Wells was $100,742.

But this doesn’t even cover the unincorporated communities outside these major cities, where many agricultural workers live, and facts and figures get a little fuzzy. These individuals work long, arduous hours to tend one of the most fertile areas of the country, then return to cramped trailers shared with dozens of others. Many of these trailer parks rarely have potable water, rats and sewage lines run unchecked, and electricity is undependable, forcing some to forage the fields for firewood material. Some communities have even become sites of hazardous waste and garbage dumping.

The contrast between these two Coachellas is so stark, it seems almost laughable, an unbelievable caricature, rather than a reality where the difference between median household incomes of neighboring towns is about $68,000. You could almost buy a Tesla with that.

There has been a growing chasm between the rich and the poor in America across cities, regions, and states, and while this issue may have been largely ignored in past years, it is certainly on the minds of the American people this election season. With millions struggling to make a living wage amidst battles with migration policy, gentrification, wage gaps, and more, we now rank #4 in income inequality in the world. The existence of the two Coachellas is just one indicator of the troubling problem of wealth inequality.

Perhaps it stems from our ingrained belief in the American Dream. The American Dream is a romantic notion somehow instilled in our collective psyches. It is the dangerous illusion that anyone and everyone can attain prestige, achieve financial excess, and own stuff — if you want it enough, pray enough, work hard enough, regardless of your race, gender, sexual identity, or economic background.

I think we can all agree that the resulting pursuit of “the hustle” has not panned out well for everyone. In a system where monetary success is dependent on competition with others, it is inevitable that in order for one to succeed, many must fail.

The disparity between the two Coachellas is just a symptom of the Dream. If we look around, we’ll see that there are symptoms all around us, in each of our communities. Wealth disparity is a nationwide disease that continues to claim the lives of our neighbors, our friends, and our families. Maybe the first step towards a cure is to realize we’re living in a Dream — and wake up.