Colorado’s high-flying economy has some holes
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
The Colorado economy is doing reasonably well in a number of headline categories, according to the new State of Working Colorado report, an annual analysis of U.S. Census Bureau and Labor Department data by the Colorado Center on Law & Policy.
Since the advent of the Great Recession in December 2007, employment has bounced back, recovering almost 167,000 jobs. The state’s rate of unemployment in 2014 was 4.9 percent, compared with 6.2 percent nationally. As of this June, the numbers had shrunk to 4.3 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively.
“You tend to hear the headline stories about job numbers, unemployment, that Colorado has one of the hottest economies in the country, true – all true,” said Michelle Webster, director of policy and budget analysis for the Center on Law & Policy. “But you have to dig a little deeper to understand what is happening.”
What is really happening, according to the analysis, is that the recovery is taking place without broadly shared prosperity. People at the lower end of the wage scale have suffered more since the recession, but even median wage earners at $18.64 per hour (2014) are less well off. College graduates experienced stagnant or declining wages over the last decade in nearly every industry, with their median wage down 2.5 percent.
Median household income has not recovered to pre-recession levels, according to the report. In other words, many if not most people in the state aren’t feeling the love of any supposed recovery boom.
THE RICH ARE FINE
Someone has to be doing better, right? Well, yes. The share of all income held by the top 1 percent of Colorado tax filers was 21.3 percent (2012), up from just a tick above 15 percent during the depths of the Great Recession.
“One of the most troubling parts about that trend is that it has actually gotten worse during the recovery,” Webster said. “The trend is not new or born out of the most recent recession – it’s been in the works for several decades.”
Other troubling trends are also not new. Those includes the disparities experienced by race, ethnicity and gender, the report found.
The white median household income in Colorado was $67,360 (2014) compared with the Latino median income of $44,174 and the black median income of $41,743. Those numbers are similar to the inequities reported by Rocky Mountain PBS I-News in the Losing Ground project, which was based on six decades of Census data.
“In 2014, Colorado women age 25 and older earned only 79.6 percent of men’s median income,” the report states. “The gap grows substantially at the upper rungs of the education ladder, with the largest income gap existing at the highest levels of education. Women who complete a bachelor’s degree or graduate degree only earn 71 percent of median income for men with similar credentials.”
That is also a national trend, not unique to Colorado.
“What drives the gap here is that many of the higher paying jobs in the state are STEM jobs (that is, science, technology, engineering and math) that tend to be dominated by males,” Webster said. “But even in professions like law and teaching at universities there are disparities.”
The poverty rates cited by the report are 8.7 percent for whites, 21.4 percent for Latinos and 19.5 percent for blacks. The statewide poverty rate was 12 percent.
But one jump in the poverty numbers that Webster described as “shocking,” even for someone who works with these numbers every day, was the number of state residents living in poverty neighborhoods. The Census Bureau designates any census tract with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more as a poverty area.
In 2000, 9.5 percent of Coloradans lived in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more, the Census analysis showed. By 2010, 21.3 percent of Coloradans lived in poverty neighborhoods – an increase of 650,000 residents.
“This clustering of poverty actually changes the experience of living in poverty,” Webster told Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, “making it more difficult, more stressful and feel more pervasive because it extends outside the home and touches the entire neighborhood.”
Nationally and in Colorado, people of color are more likely to experience poverty clustering.
In analyzing the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 2009-2013, 15 percent of whites were found to be living in poverty neighborhoods, while 42 percent of blacks and 40 percent of Latinos lived in census tracts where the poverty rate was 20 percent or more.
“We feel a little bit like this report is a huge downer,” Webster said.
The downer will be presented to the state Legislature in January.
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