Imagine supporting a family of four on less than $36,000 a year. It seems unthinkable. Impossible, even. But for 20 percent of Colorado families, it's reality.
Those who fall under the federal poverty line ($22,200 for a family of four) qualify for programs such as welfare and food stamps. But nearly 12 percent of Colorado families are in the gray area above the poverty line and below the state-designated "self-sufficiency standard" (around $36,000-$37,000 for a family of four)—meaning they earn too much to qualify for federal aid, but not enough to cover necessities like childcare, housing, and health care. Many of these families work more hours than typical full-time jobs demand. "Most don't realize the majority of people struggling may have two, even three jobs," says Carmen Rhodes, the executive director of FRESC, a nonprofit voice for livable wages, benefits, and affordable housing. "Sometimes we think about the homeless, but we don't necessarily think about working families who are trying to make ends meet."
In addition, Colorado has one of the fastest growing income gaps in the country. Those at the low end of the payroll, largely in the rural southeast part of the state, have suffered the most from the recent economic turbulence, according to Barry Poulson, an economics professor at the University of Colorado. Food prices alone have risen by nearly 45 percent in rural Colorado since 2004. Though Colorado's minimum wage of $7.28 per hour is higher than the national minimum, it's still far from enough to suffice for those who must choose between paying rent, medical bills, and utilities in any given month.
Compared to other states, Colorado is faring well in the face of dicey economic trends, but this provides little comfort given discouraging figures such as our child poverty rate, which is the fastest growing in the country, with a 73 percent jump between 2000 and 2006. It's a problem that will only build on itself, Rhodes says, so the community must be proactive in helping those stuck in employment or earning ruts. "We need to pursue new and creative strategies to make sure that jobs are paying enough to make ends meet—and maybe to have a little left over."