Nov 20, 2019

The co-author of three books on poverty, Donald Burnes has served as an executive director for various nonprofits. Culminating a longtime commitment to advancing racial equity and fighting poverty, Donald W. and Lynn K. Burnes gave a generous gift to Colorado Center on Law and Policy, creating The Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at CCLP.

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Don Burnes: My Fight Against Poverty and What’s Next

by | Nov 20, 2019

It is with great excitement that I am announcing that I have developed a partnership with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy (CCLP) to establish the Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at CCLP. Colorado Center on Law and Policy has ensured that its legislative and legal advocacy is evidence-based and advances an anti-poverty and racial equity agenda. With the formation of the Burnes Institute for Poverty Research at CCLP, together we can ensure that poverty solutions are rooted in quantitative and qualitative data.

My sincere hope is that this collaboration will inform the policy dialogue across the state to help us bridge the gaps in our economy, so that ideally all Coloradans will have the chance to thrive. Over the last 16 years that I have lived in Colorado, I have come to understand the enormous respect that the community has for CCLP and its work, and I am thrilled to become a part of that.

Decades of service
People often ask me, where does my drive to address inequity come from? Growing up in an upper-middle class community but from a strictly middle-class teaching family where I was confronted by being a second-class citizen almost daily, I have always fought for the underdog. Being on scholarship at prep school and at Princeton, I always felt somehow “less-than,” and this carried over into both my graduate education and professional career.

Following two years as a church-based volunteer in a low-income neighborhood in St. Louis and a stint in the administration of predominately African American college in Alabama in the mid-1960s, I worked in Washington in several positions dedicated to civil rights and educational advancement for disadvantaged children. Even after receiving my PhD from Columbia Teachers College, I continued working at the National Institute of Education as a researcher on programs for children experiencing poverty.

In 1985, I “returned to my roots,” based on my St. Louis experience, and directed another church-based effort, this time to directly address poverty in Washington. After two and half years, my late wife, Alice Baum, and I left behind the direct service arena and focused on a policy look at homelessness, ending with the publication of a book in 1993.

After Alice’s death in 2003, I returned to Denver to reconnect with an old flame with whom I hadn’t even talked for almost 20 years. Fortunately, the reconnection worked, and we were married in 2004. Upon my return to the Mile High City, I also immediately became involved in the issue of homelessness, helping with the drafting of Denver’s 10-year-plan to end homelessness, sitting on the Denver’s Road Home Commission and the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative Board, being appointed to Gov. Bill Ritter’s and Gov. John Hickenlooper’s state homelessness advisory commissions, and being part of Adams County’s Blue Ribbon Commission on poverty issues.

In 2013, with the help of two colleagues, I developed a small nonprofit called the Burnes Institute. Over the first two and a half years of its existence, the institute worked on program evaluation for several local service providers and conducted a major assessment of homeless services for Boulder.

That same year, the Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver, James Herbert Williams, a member of the Institute’s Board of Directors, appointed me as a scholar-in-residence at the graduate school, requiring only that I do something to add to the intellectual life of the institution. That prompted me to engage on what became a truly life-changing endeavor, teaching a class on homelessness to graduate students. This commitment forced me to reflect on my years of experience and to read extensively more up-to-date research on the issue.

This tsunami of intellectual fervor forced me to admit that systemic forces at all levels of our society and economy — such as a failure to provide adequate housing, inadequate wages and the failure to provide adequate health care and child care to all our citizens — have been reinforced by pervasive structural racism. Ultimately, these factors are major culprits in our failure to address poverty adequately.

A second significant benefit of my association with Dr. Williams was our mutual agreement to shift the Burnes Institute into the graduate school. For over 40 months, our Center has conducted intervention research, policy research, program evaluation and community-needs assessment. Led first by me and then by Dr. Daniel Brisson, we strived to do quality work and to simultaneously engage with the community. As I learned over those months, being part of an academic community creates significant advantages in terms of recognition and prestige amid a community of dedicated and highly qualified faculty and staff.

I also came to understand that it was time for me to take the next step in the evolution of our organization and in the development of my own work. Co-editing and co-authoring two books on poverty and homelessness put me in touch with experts and the best current thinking across the country.

Conducting the studies at the Center reinforced the need to move ahead, as did the significant reports from CCLP, including the Self-Sufficiency Standard, The State of Working Colorado and the Human Services Gap Map. Here were data driven documents that highlighted major problems with our social system.

Looking forward
All of this forced me to recognize that identifying the problem is only a part of the battle. In order to make real change, one must utilize important data to identify possible systemic changes and then develop the legislation and build support to enact those changes (and take legal action if necessary). This is precisely what CCLP is about.

By focusing on food, health, housing, and income, CCLP will defend and expand Colorado’s safety net, advocate for Coloradans’ self-sufficiency, and endeavor to shift the state’s power dynamic.
From a personal standpoint, in the past several weeks, I have had an opportunity to renew professional acquaintances at CCLP and to meet the other staff for the first time. I have been impressed by the quality of all the staff and the work they are doing. Just as importantly, I have found the overall work environment to be so positive and refreshing, with great mutual respect, admiration and friendship. In addition, the CCLP leadership has welcomed an enhanced and better resourced research department — Burnes Institute for Poverty Research– with open arms, making the transition as smooth as possible.

As I look to the future of our Institute and of CCLP at large, I see exciting opportunities to affect systemic change in Colorado and throughout the nation. Added to that will be more training and technical assistance work with officials and consumers from counties and local jurisdictions around the state to help communities identify their challenges and work to address them.

Together, we can expand our research capacity — especially as we collaborate with research and service partners around the state. I foresee CCLP becoming a convener of important local, statewide, and even national forums on issues of importance. With the new leadership of Tiffani Lennon and the remarkable staff already at CCLP, this is an exciting time at CCLP. Again, I am pleased to be a part of it.

-Don Burnes

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.