With statistics showing unemployment at historic lows and poverty levels falling, you'd think all Coloradans would be sharing the prosperity that comes with a booming economy.
Yet, data from Colorado Center on Law and Policy's recently released report, "Overlooked & Undercounted 2018: Struggling to Make Ends Meet in Colorado," show that 27 percent of Colorado households are not able to earn enough to meet their basic needs – sometimes even when there are two full-time workers in the household.
Published by Colorado Center on Law and Policy, the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado 2018 measures how much income families of various sizes need to make ends meet without public or private assistance. It details the monthly costs of housing, child care, food, transportation and other basic needs in all 64 Colorado counties.
For example, in Mesa County, a family with one adult and one preschooler needs annual income of $40,468 to make ends meet — more than twice the federal benchmark of $16,460 for a family of two. A total of 36.1 percent of households in Mesa County fall under the standard, giving it one of the highest rates of income inadequacy in Colorado.
If unemployment and poverty levels are low, why can't more people make ends meet? Frankly, the responsibility falls on policies and systems that have boxed too many Coloradans into jobs with inadequate pay. For a family with one adult, one preschooler, and one school-age child, the income need to be self-sufficient increased on average by 78 percent across the state between 2001 and 2017. This contrasts with the median wage, which only increased by 43 percent over the same period. Simply put, wages haven't kept up with the rising cost of living in Colorado, and the problem is statewide, not just in high-cost Front Range and mountain resort communities.
Although the standard highlights how jobs are falling short in providing adequate wages and how the cost of basic needs is rising, it also demonstrates the importance of public benefits such as Medicaid, which provides health coverage for individuals and families that otherwise couldn't afford it, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps puts food on the table for many Colorado families when wages are not enough. Tax credits such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Care Tax Credit also provide some limited financial relief for those who are struggling.
So what can be done? We are hopeful that policymakers in 2019 will consider measures that help fill the gap between what jobs pay and basic household expenses while also enacting policies that help people achieve financial security. For example, Colorado falls far short of the national average in enrolling eligible households in SNAP. Colorado needs over 100,000 more homes that people working in low-paying jobs can afford so that they can afford their rent and also pay for other household expenses. Job training programs at community colleges that could help increase household income are often too expensive and would require a temporary loss of income while pursuing retraining. The cost of tuition must come down and people should have access to a living stipend such as the Earned Income Tax Credit so they can increase their earning potential.
In addition, policies such as allowing municipalities to set their own minimum wage according to the local cost of living, and helping Coloradans that do not have access to a retirement savings program put money away for retirement would help address the income gap.
For our part, CCLP will continue its work on giving renters additional legal protections to increase housing stability. We seek to boost the property tax, rent and heat rebate program to help people afford their housing and utility costs. We are also proposing to make the Child Care Tax Credit permanent for those earning less than $25,000 a year.
A truly strong economy would provide jobs that have good benefits and pay self-sufficient wages. We would have a workforce with the skills necessary to fill those jobs. And in the parts of Colorado where good jobs do not exist, including much of rural Colorado, we would have robust work supports so everyone can live a decent life.
We encourage policy-makers, opinion-leaders, community organizers and concerned citizens to use the data in the Self-Sufficiency Standard and Overlooked & Undercounted to forge more a more equitable economy for the future. Together, we can structure our policies and institutions to create a Colorado that works for all of us.
Claire Levy is the executive director of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. The Self Sufficiency Standard Report Series is available at cclponline.org/sss2018. Check out the interactive map to see how much income your household needs to earn to reach self-sufficiency.