Jan 14, 2020

Charles serves as CCLP's Deputy Director of Research, using data and research to support our efforts to stand with diverse communities across Colorado in the fight against poverty. Staff page ›

Recent articles

25th anniversary recap

On August 10, 2023, CCLP celebrated our 25th anniversary, bringing friends new and old to the Carriage House at the Governor's Residence.

Poverty decreased statewide, but increased in parts of Colorado

by | Jan 14, 2020

You may have missed it with the end-of-the-year hustle and bustle, but the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest county-level estimates for 2018 on Dec. 19, 2019. The data, which provides a socio-economic snapshot of the state and its counties, allows us to see how the economic security of Coloradans has changed between 2017 and 2018.

The poverty rate is one of the primary indicators that CCLP considers for its semiannual State of Working Colorado compendium (a 2020 version of the report is in the works). While the number changes depending on which survey you reference, the data released in December show that 10.9 percent of Colorado residents lived below the poverty level in 2018. This is lower than 2017 when 11.5 percent of Coloradans lived in poverty. Overall, the Census Bureau estimates over 21,600 fewer Coloradans lived in poverty in 2018 compared to 2017 — a decrease of 3.5 percent. This is a great achievement that should be celebrated.

There’s more to the story…
However, as with most statistics one sees in the news about the economy, this headline does not tell the full story of who is struggling to get by in our state. To understand why this is the case, it is important understand what we mean when we talk about the poverty rate. In the United States, poverty is defined by the federal government as the income needed to cover three-times the costs of a minimum food diet in 1963, adjusted for inflation and family size. In other words, poverty is measured based on a methodology that has not fundamentally changed in over 50 years, other than to account for changes in the cost of living. This approach to measuring poverty assumes that three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 is enough income for a family or household to be economically secure and self-sufficient in 2018. Furthermore, the poverty level set by the federal government is the same across all 48 states in the contiguous United States and does not adjust to reflect variations in the cost of living across the country, let alone within a state.

In order to create a more accurate picture of who is struggling economically in our state, CCLP works with the University of Washington to publish the Self-Sufficiency Standard report that measures a household’s income needs by looking at the actual costs of housing, food, health care, transportation, child care and other expenses in every county in Colorado. This “budget” is further adjusted by family type, so that it can accurately account for how expenses vary among Colorado’s diverse families. For example, a family of two would have had to have earned at least $16,460 in 2018 to be considered above the poverty level. Depending on the county, a family consisting of one adult and one preschooler would have needed to earn anywhere between $24,499 (if living in Baca County) and $71,274 (if living in Pitkin County) in 2018 to cover their basic needs according to the Standard. This broad range of needed income illustrates the importance of taking local cost of living into account when discussing Coloradans’ economic security.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard also shows a very different picture of economic need in Colorado. For instance, 8.4 percent of working-age families in Colorado (households with at least one member between the ages of 18 and 64 with no work-limiting disability) were below the poverty level in 2016, compared to 27.4 percent who were below the Self-Sufficiency Standard (2016 incomes were inflated to 2018 dollars in order to compare them to the Self-Sufficiency Standard). In other words, nearly 300,000 households in the state earn enough income to be above the poverty level, but still do not earn enough to cover the essential goods and services they need to get by. Why does the poverty measure used by the federal government undercount economic need by so much? Looking across all the family budgets calculated for the Self-Sufficiency Standard (719 family types x 64 counties), food accounts for an average of 17.3 percent of the total monthly costs faced by families, not 33 percent as assumed in the official poverty measure. In other words, the official poverty measure over-estimates the share of money in a family’s monthly budget that goes towards food while under-estimating the share that goes to other expenses, such as housing or health care.

Poverty increases in many counties
When talking about poverty in Colorado, it is also important to remember that economic opportunity is not equally distributed across our state. This latest release from the U.S. Census Bureau allows us to examine how poverty rates have changed in each of Colorado’s 64 counties. According to the American Community Survey, poverty rates varied tremendously across Colorado in 2018. Douglas County had the lowest rate (3.5 percent) while Costilla County had the highest rate (at 30.1 percent). In all, 38 counties had poverty rates higher than the rate for the state (10.9 percent).

While the state’s poverty rate declined between 2017 and 2018, this decline was not uniform across all counties. 23 counties saw their poverty rate increase. In addition, 25 counties saw an increase in the total number of people living below the poverty level. But it’s not all bad news: 26 counties saw their poverty rates decline by more than the decline seen in the state. These county-level statistics demonstrate why we need to be cautious when looking at state-level economic data, which often masks these local trends.

As we move into the 2020 legislative session, this data reminds us of two crucial points:

  1. While some might argue that the booming state economy means we don’t need to expand social safety net programs or that we can cut them altogether, there are parts of Colorado where the need for these programs remains or has grown.
  2. The poverty threshold does not accurately reflect the cost of living in our state. As health care, housing and child care costs, among many others, continue to rise, there will be an increasing number of families living above the poverty level but unable to cover the costs of the goods and services they need to get by.

As a state, we must continue to support programs and policies that provide relief to these families as they work to become self-sufficient and economically secure.

Note on data: While it’s common to see data from the five-year American Community Survey presented as a data point for a single year (2018 for example), it is important to keep in mind that the data represent a 5-year average of survey samples. The data for 2018 was collected between 2014-2018. This is done to ensure there is a large enough sample size for statistically valid results for geographic places (counties, cities/towns, etc.) with fewer than 65,000 residents. Effectively, this averaging results in a number that is more “smooth” than data reported in other Census Bureau surveys, as year-to-year changes are moderated by the results from the previous four years when the numbers are averaged. However, for ease of understanding we refer to the five-year estimates as data for 2018.


– By Charlie Brennan

Recent articles

25th anniversary recap

On August 10, 2023, CCLP celebrated our 25th anniversary, bringing friends new and old to the Carriage House at the Governor's Residence.

HEALTH:
HEALTH FIRST COLORADO (MEDICAID)

To maintain health and well-being, people of all ages need access to quality health care that improves outcomes and reduces costs for the community. Health First Colorado, the state's Medicaid program, is public health insurance for low-income Coloradans who qualify. The program is funded jointly by a federal-state partnership and is administered by the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy & Financing.

Benefits of the program include behavioral health, dental services, emergency care, family planning services, hospitalization, laboratory services, maternity care, newborn care, outpatient care, prescription drugs, preventive and wellness services, primary care and rehabilitative services.

In tandem with the Affordable Care Act, Colorado expanded Medicaid eligibility in 2013 - providing hundreds of thousands of adults with incomes less than 133% FPL with health insurance for the first time increasing the health and economic well-being of these Coloradans. Most of the money for newly eligible Medicaid clients has been covered by the federal government, which will gradually decrease its contribution to 90% by 2020.

Other populations eligible for Medicaid include children, who qualify with income up to 142% FPL, pregnant women with household income under 195% FPL, and adults with dependent children with household income under 68% FPL.

Some analyses indicate that Colorado's investment in Medicaid will pay off in the long run by reducing spending on programs for the uninsured.

FOOD SECURITY:
SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (SNAP)

Hunger, though often invisible, affects everyone. It impacts people's physical, mental and emotional health and can be a culprit of obesity, depression, acute and chronic illnesses and other preventable medical conditions. Hunger also hinders education and productivity, not only stunting a child's overall well-being and academic achievement, but consuming an adult's ability to be a focused, industrious member of society. Even those who have never worried about having enough food experience the ripple effects of hunger, which seeps into our communities and erodes our state's economy.

Community resources like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, exist to ensure that families and individuals can purchase groceries, with the average benefit being about $1.40 per meal, per person.

Funding for SNAP comes from the USDA, but the administrative costs are split between local, state, and federal governments. Yet, the lack of investment in a strong, effective SNAP program impedes Colorado's progress in becoming the healthiest state in the nation and providing a better, brighter future for all. Indeed, Colorado ranks 44th in the nation for access to SNAP and lost out on more than $261 million in grocery sales due to a large access gap in SNAP enrollment.

See the Food Assistance (SNAP) Benefit Calculator to get an estimate of your eligibility for food benefits.

FOOD SECURITY:
SPECIAL SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION PROGRAM FOR WOMEN, INFANTS AND CHILDREN (WIC)

Every child deserves the nutritional resources needed to get a healthy start on life both inside and outside the mother's womb. In particular, good nutrition and health care is critical for establishing a strong foundation that could affect a child's future physical and mental health, academic achievement and economic productivity. Likewise, the inability to access good nutrition and health care endangers the very integrity of that foundation.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition information for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

Research has shown that WIC has played an important role in improving birth outcomes and containing health care costs, resulting in longer pregnancies, fewer infant deaths, a greater likelihood of receiving prenatal care, improved infant-feeding practices, and immunization rates

Financial Security:
Colorado Works

In building a foundation for self-sufficiency, some Colorado families need some extra tools to ensure they can weather challenging financial circumstances and obtain basic resources to help them and their communities reach their potential.

Colorado Works is Colorado's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and provides public assistance to families in need. The Colorado Works program is designed to assist participants in becoming self-sufficient by strengthening the economic and social stability of families. The program provides monthly cash assistance and support services to eligible Colorado families.

The program is primarily funded by a federal block grant to the state. Counties also contribute about 20% of the cost.

EARLY LEARNING:
COLORADO CHILD CARE ASSISTANCE PROGRAM (CCCAP)

Child care is a must for working families. Along with ensuring that parents can work or obtain job skills training to improve their families' economic security, studies show that quality child care improves children's academic performance, career development and health outcomes.

Yet despite these proven benefits, low-income families often struggle with the cost of child care. Colorado ranks among the top 10 most expensive states in the country for center-based child care. For families with an infant, full-time enrollment at a child care center cost an average of $15,140 a year-or about three-quarters of the total income of a family of three living at the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP) provides child care assistance to parents who are working, searching for employment or participating in training, and parents who are enrolled in the Colorado Works Program and need child care services to support their efforts toward self-sufficiency. Most of the money for CCCAP comes from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. Each county can set their own income eligibility limit as long as it is at or above 165% of the federal poverty level and does not exceed 85% of area median income.

Unfortunately, while the need is growing, only an estimated one-quarter of all eligible children in the state are served by CCCAP. Low reimbursement rates have also resulted in fewer providers willing to accept CCCAP subsidies.