2019-07-09
Story

Brittany Hanes outside her apartment in Westminster, Colo.

Photo by Joe Mahoney / Special to the Colorado Trust

By Jenny McCoy

For years, Brittany Hanes, a 34-year-old working single mother of one living in Adams County, has earned both too little—and too much.

When her son Jayden, now 10, was younger, Hanes said she earned about $200 too much per month to qualify for the Child Care Assistance Program. When he was about four years old, Hanes applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and, again, made too much—about $10 too much per month—to qualify.

“I have always been fortunate enough to be above the federal poverty line, but at the same time, I have never been anywhere near self-sufficient,” said Hanes, a Colorado native who currently earns $34,000 a year as a data quality supervisor in Denver. That income is enough to cover rent for the two-bedroom apartment she and Jayden share in Westminster, thanks to a local nonprofit that offers low-cost housing. The income also covers their basic health care, food and transportation costs. But it’s not enough for child care—which is why Hanes’s father steps in to babysit—or for building any substantial savings that could buoy the family in the event of emergency.

In fact, Hanes makes about $12,000 a year too little in order to actually meet the basic needs for her family. That’s according to new data, the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado 2018, which calculates how much income working families of various types need to meet their basic needs in all 64 counties in Colorado, without relying on public or private assistance.

This latest edition of the analysis, produced for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy (CCLP) by the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington and partially funded by The Colorado Trust, factors in standard costs of housing, child care, food, health care, transportation and miscellaneous items, as well as the cost of taxes and the impact of tax credits. With the interactive map, Coloradans can select their county and input their family type (number of adults and number and ages of children) to see exactly how much their household needs to earn to be considered self-sufficient.

A consistent finding from the self-sufficiency data, which has been calculated for Colorado every three to four years since 2001, is that many incomes that eclipse the federal poverty line are “nevertheless far below what is necessary to meet families’ basic needs,” per the report. And the number of Coloradans like Hanes who are struggling in the in-between is growing at a rapid pace.

According to the 2018 report, 27 percent of Coloradans (430,150 households) currently fall below the self-sufficiency standard, a seven percent jump from 2001. Over the past 17 years, the self-sufficiency standard for a three-person family with one adult, one preschooler and one school-age child has climbed an average of 78 percent across the state, from $36,797 in 2001 to $59,694 in 2018. Compare that to the median wage, which has increased just 43 percent during the same period ($25,854 to $37,008), and it’s easy to understand why so many Coloradans are struggling to get by.

“When we look at poverty as a measure of well-being, it just really doesn’t reflect the lived experience of people in Colorado,” said Claire Levy, CCLP's former executive director who left the organization at the end of May. Currently, 10.3 percent of Coloradans meet the federal government’s definition of poverty—leaving nearly 17 percent of residents above the poverty line, yet below a wage needed to fully support themselves.

There are several reasons the federal poverty level, developed in the 1960s, is now an outdated measure:

  • It’s a blanket standard applied across the country with no recognition of higher-cost and lower-cost areas, said Levy.
  • While it factors in family size, it doesn’t take into account the age of family members, which significantly influences a household’s expenses. Supporting an infant, for example, costs much more than a teenager.
  • It’s based solely on the cost of food, and assumes food comprises one-third of a family’s total budget, leaving the remaining two-thirds for everything else. In reality, food now represents a much smaller slice of a family’s total expenses.

“The poverty guideline is just a very imprecise, very blunt tool,” said Levy. Being above the guideline “by no means indicates that you’re able to support yourself.”

Exactly what it takes to be self-sufficient varies greatly across the state, the report found. A family with one adult and one preschooler in Pitkin County, the state’s most expensive county, needs to earn $71,274 a year to meet the standard—more than four times the federal poverty level for a two-person family ($16,460). In Baca County, one of the least expensive counties in the state, that same family would need just $29,674 a year, far less than Pitkin, though still nearly twice the poverty level. In general, the most affordable counties are in the south and east portions of the state, and the most expensive are those outlying metro areas, like Boulder and Douglas counties, as well as resort areas, like Pitkin, Routt and Summit counties.

But living in a more affordable area of the state, which typically means in a more rural area, doesn’t equate to a better life. “In fact, what we learned is [rural counties] are the counties in which the greatest portion of the population is below” the self-sufficiency standard, said Levy. Data in a supplemental demographic analysis by CCLP, Overlooked & Undercounted 2018, showed rural counties in southern Colorado have the state’s highest rates of income inadequacy (meaning they fall below the self-sufficiency standard), at 35 to 41 percent, compared to rates of 14 to 24 percent reported in the counties south and west of Denver.

Another revealing fact from Overlooked & Undercounted: populations of color in Colorado disproportionately experience inadequate income, with Latino/a households reporting the highest rate of inadequate income (47 percent), followed by African Americans (46 percent). That’s compared to 21 percent of white households.

“If anyone thinks that we have left persistent racism behind us, I think you just need to look at these data, and they tell a different story,” said Levy.

In comparing Colorado’s current self-sufficiency standard to other states across the country, “we are a fairly high-cost state,” said Levy. Take a family with one adult, one preschooler and one school-age child, for example. In Denver, that household would need to earn $31.12 per hour to meet the self-sufficiency standard, compared to just $22.06 in Nashville, $26.85 in Austin and $29.35 in Charlotte.

Though Hanes has made significant strides in the past year towards self-sufficiency—moving out of the cramped single bedroom that she and Jayden shared in her parents’ house last spring; earning a promotion at work in January; receiving financial coaching from a local nonprofit—she doesn’t consider herself there yet.

“If I lost my job tomorrow, that would really wreck a lot of things,” she said. “Even though I have about a little more than month's worth of costs saved up, that is only a month.”

Her initial reaction to hearing the self-sufficiency standard for her family—$45,959—is to laugh. “I mean, $46,000 a year would absolutely change my entire life,” said Hanes.

“One of the biggest things would be thinking about our savings—money into college savings accounts, doctor’s appointments, mental health appointments,” she added, along with a car “that doesn’t break down” and an apartment with more standard amenities, like in-building laundry.

To help families like Hanes’s climb the ladder to self-sufficiency, the 2018 data includes another supplemental report, On the Road: Exploring Economic Security Pathways In Colorado, laying out paths forward for those with inadequate income to achieve economic security, including through higher education.

But it’s not just on struggling families to improve their conditions. Levy hopes the report will spur more investment in affordable housing and child care assistance (one of the biggest household expenses), and bring awareness—and, ultimately, action—to closing income gaps based on race and ethnicity.

The analysis also reinforces the reality that if families are fighting to pay rent and afford their basic needs, “it’s not for lack of working,” Levy said. “It’s because jobs in Colorado are not paying enough to meet the high cost of living.”

Jenny McCoy
Journalist
Boulder, Colorado