Feb 16, 2017

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Working Colorado: Where are the men?

by | Feb 16, 2017

It’s one of the most compelling questions about our modern labor market. While jobs have returned since the recession and unemployment is low, it is clear that not all workers have returned to work. And the people most prominently missing from the labor force are men.

Yet, as with many challenges facing our post-recession economy, this problem has been building for decades. The percentage of prime working-age men employed or actively looking for work peaked at nearly 98 percent in 1954. Since the mid-1960’s, the labor force participation rate of men has steadily declined. Today, the figure sits at about 88 percent.

In Colorado, labor force participation of prime-working-age men dropped dramatically during the recession from 91.7 percent in 2007 to a low of 85.2 percent in 2011. Since then, the labor-force participation rate slowly approached its pre-recession levels. In 2015, the share of Colorado men engaged in the labor market was 87.6 percent — on par with the national rate.

Across the country, lower labor-force participation rates have affected men of all races and ethnicities. This is true in Colorado as well where labor-force participation is down for both white men and men of color. While men of color experienced a more substantial drop in labor force participation during the recession — falling a full 10 percentage points between 2007 and 2011 — these workers have returned to the labor force more quickly.

These trends are concerning. The absence of several thousand workers from the state economy — and upwards of 7 million non-working men nationwide — has enormous consequences for these men, their families and the economy as a whole. A smaller workforce results in an economy that grows more slowly. And having a substantial number of men leave the labor force during their prime earning years certainly does not bode well for the long-term health and well-being of our families and communities.

Falling labor-force participation is concentrated among less-educated men. The job market has changed most substantially for this group for a number of reasons, including:

  • The trade deficit with China – – According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, the growth in the consumer goods trade deficit with China since 2001 has resulted in a loss of 3.4 million blue-collar jobs nationwide, mostly in manufacturing. Job losses occurred across the country, including an estimated 62,000 jobs in Colorado (equivalent to about 2.5 percent of state employment). And the effect of the trade deficit with China is not limited to job losses. Competing with lower wage countries depresses wages and reduces bargaining power of millions of U.S. workers.
  • The proliferation of automation – – The more recent threat to American jobs is not China or Mexico but rather the pace of automation. Recent research has concluded that automation has had a larger effect on job loss than globalization and that many of the jobs lost to China would have been eliminated by technological advances anyway. Another analysis estimated that about 13 percent of manufacturing job losses can be attributed to trade while the remaining losses can be explained by technological advances that replaced workers with machines.

These broad shifts in the American economy have contributed to the reduction in demand for lower skilled labor and lower earnings of less-educated men — factors that explain much of the decline in labor force participation. In Colorado, the median wage for men has remained flat since 2000.

Our economy is in transition. The number of well-paying jobs that don’t require post-secondary training or education has been declining for years. Meanwhile, the more rapidly growing jobs that are less threatened by automation – such as health care, education and administrative jobs — have traditionally been occupied by women.

Recent research indicates how men are coping with these economic shifts. Analysis by the American Enterprise Institute paints a startling picture of unemployed men becoming increasingly detached from civil society, spending much of their time watching television and playing video games. Other analysis points to a high level of physical and emotional health problems among less-educated, unemployed men.

Labor economists point to several ways we can ease the effect of these economic shifts for lower-wage, less-educated workers. Policies that include strengthening labor unions, investments in public sector infrastructure development jobs, higher minimum wage to lift the wage floor, a larger earned income tax credit, better connections to job training and re-training in growing fields, and policies that support work, such as paid sick leave.

-Michelle Webster

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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.