How and why Colorado must do better

How and why Colorado must do better

Behind the headlines about Colorado’s prosperous economy lurks the vexing fact that little has changed for most Colorado workers — particularly workers of color — over the past seven years.

According to Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s newly released 2017 State of Working Colorado, wage stagnation and underemployment have remained a point of frustration among far too many Coloradans since the end of the Great Recession. While most Coloradans have not reaped the benefits of the economic boom, Black and Latino workers have been particularly hard hit as they experience higher rates of joblessness than their White peers. In addition, a significant and disturbing number of Coloradans continue to live in poverty, unable to earn enough to meet their basic needs.

If these facts seem to contradict the common perception that Colorado’s economy is “thriving,” that’s because the economic gains have been concentrated among the richest households. Unfortunately, even as higher wages and better jobs continue to elude most Coloradans, the cost of housing, food and health care continue to rise — exacerbating workers’ financial woes.

The State of Working Colorado is intended to help stakeholders and policymakers determine where to focus their efforts in revitalizing Colorado for all who live and work here. CCLP produces this annual collection of data to gauge how the economy is performing for workers across the income spectrum.

Among this year’s findings:

* Wages have remained stagnant over the past decade regardless of education level and despite growing productivity — making it increasingly difficult for low- to middle-wage workers to keep up with the rising cost of living in the state. In 2016, the median hourly wage in Colorado was $18.92 — still below the 2007 median wage after adjusting for inflation. Meanwhile, the wealthiest Coloradans saw their wages grow much faster and more consistently than middle- and low-wage earners across the state. Those in the 80th and 90th percentiles on the income spectrum experienced income growth of 6.3 and 12.2 percent, respectively since 2000.

* Though the statewide unemployment rate has dropped significantly, Black and Latino workers still face higher levels of joblessness. In 2016, the unemployment rate for Latinos was 4.8 percent — two percentage points above that for White workers (2.8 percent). Latinos also experienced relatively high rates of underemployment (10.6 percent) compared to White workers (6.4 percent) in 2016. Unemployment for Black Coloradans at 4.5 percent also was higher compared to White workers but Black workers experienced a slightly lower level of underemployment at 5.5 percent.

* Median income varies substantially by race and ethnicity, even after adjusting for education. In Colorado in 2016, median income for Latino households was 69 percent of White median household income. Among Black households, median income was 67 percent of White households.

* Though Colorado added nearly 305,700 jobs since 2007, a growing share of jobs don’t pay enough for single adults to meet their budgeting needs. An estimated 20.5 percent of the jobs added pay less than the self-sufficiency rate — up from 9.4 percent in 2001.  This change reveals a significant restructuring in the mix of jobs in Colorado and challenges the notion that working is by itself the means of achieving economic security.

While Colorado’s productivity and economic growth have improved dramatically since the Great Recession, the metrics for workers’ economic security have not improved for most workers. Communities of color in particular are being left behind. Unfortunately, as higher wages and better jobs continue to elude most Coloradans, the cost of housing, child care and health care continues to rise — deepening many workers’ financial woes. The persistent disparities in income, employment and poverty by race and ethnicity in Colorado ultimately threaten the prosperity of the state as a whole.

The State of Working Colorado points to the need for legislators and business and philanthropic leaders to focus their efforts on policies that will increase wages paid by the rapidly growing service sector, make a concerted effort to rectify the legacy of racial discrimination, and deploy evidence-based programs to tackle poverty at its roots. For the 2018 session, CCLP is backing legislation to help Coloradans continue to have food, health care and housing despite their stagnating income and to ensure that more Coloradans can seize the opportunities of our growing economy.

We all aspire to be able to support ourselves and our families, to control our financial future, and to share in the prosperity we see around us. Policies that improve economic security of hard-working Coloradans help communities and the economy as a whole. That’s why CCLP will continue working for a better future for the state that we love.

– By Claire Levy