Dec 19, 2017

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How and why Colorado must do better

by | Dec 19, 2017

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

Recent articles


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.