Sep 29, 2016

An expert in policy advocacy and coalition building, Chaer has dedicated her career to helping people meet their basic needs and expanding economic opportunity. She serves on the executive committee of the All Families Deserve a Chance (AFDC) coalition. Staff page ›

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Adult education: The cornerstone of workforce development

by | Sep 29, 2016

There is nothing like a healthy economy to provide opportunities for those who might otherwise be overlooked in the job market. Yet, despite Colorado’s economic gains in recent years, employment and upward mobility remain challenging for those who don’t complete high school.

The 394,471 Coloradans (or 9.4 percent of the state’s population) without high school diplomas are much less likely to participate in the workforce than those with more education. In addition, those without a high school diploma have a 6.4 percent unemployment rate, versus 2.1 percent for those with a bachelor’s or advance degree.

Only 12 percent of jobs nationally are open to those who haven’t earned a high school diploma. Meanwhile, Colorado’s workforce tends to be highly educated, so competition can be fierce in this state and even more challenging for those who lack education.

Once on the job market, individuals without high school diplomas earn significantly less than their better-educated contemporaries. For example, average median wages are only $23,004 a year for those without high school diplomas, compared to $30,568 for high school graduates and $48,818 for college graduates.

Because education and training opportunities usually require a high school diploma or equivalency diploma, finding an upward-mobility path can also pose a serious challenge for many Coloradans. With the exception of a few approved career pathway training programs, Pell grants and other federal finance aid may not be available for community college or other post-secondary opportunities for students without high school diplomas.

The Federal Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (or AEFLA) provides over $7 million in funding to Colorado as part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.  A majority of adult education students under AEFLA are English language learners. This federal money requires a local match, but increasing any local or state funding does not enable Colorado to draw down more federal money.

Unlike some other states, Colorado does not subsidize high school equivalency exams, so students pay the bill. The cost of a GED is $150 for a GED, with part of the student fee paying for the state program overseeing high school equivalency exams. The high cost of the exam alone can discourage students who might pass from trying.

Fortunately, some recent policy developments provide glimmers of hope for those who may face barriers to employment due to their lack of education.

In 2014, Colorado became the last state to provide state funding for adult education with the passage of House Bill 1085, developed by the Skills2Compete Colorado Coalition led by CCLP.  Known as the Adult Education Workforce Partnerships bill, this legislation anticipated the passage of the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (or WIOA), which requires organization partners to work together to smooth the path from education to employment.

Workforce centers, vocational rehabilitation programs, adult education and even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are supposed to coordinate to help people find training and employment. HB 1085 provided $960,000 to develop partnerships to help adult education students get a high school equivalency diploma, job training and job placements.

But due to limited funding, obtaining grants under HB 1085 is an extremely competitive process. For example, in the initial cycle — just months after HB 1085 passed — 19 proposals were submitted and nine multi-year grants were funded. In the upcoming round this fall, even more proposals are expected.

Under WIOA, services for those with barriers to employment are supposed to be prioritized. Among the populations listed are “those with low basic skills,” which certainly includes those without high school diplomas.

Colorado is developing exciting workforce development programs in response to employer needs. Yet without additional “on-ramps” to career pathways through adult education, those without a high school degree will struggle to find a way for hard work to result in upward mobility.

Hopefully, as the economy improves, these highlighted policies and other initiatives will forge more opportunities for those who’ve struggled to gain a foothold in the job market in the past.

– Chaer Robert

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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.


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.


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.


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.