When Colorado’s working families are self-sufficient, our state is stronger
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
It’s been said that the best anti-poverty measure is a job. But for more than a quarter of Colorado’s workforce, working hard isn’t enough to make ends meet.
In a recent report, we found that more than 48,000 working families in Colorado lived below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four in 2011. Another 154,085 families – 27 percent of all working families in Colorado – lived on up to twice that amount.
This means that despite working hard, too many Coloradans are unable to meet basic needs and become self-sufficient.
Our report, “Measuring Opportunities for Working Families,” is an analysis of the economic health and status of Colorado’s working poor families. After studying 20 measures of self-sufficiency, achievement and economic well-being at three intervals since 2004, we found that while several indicators have improved with the economy, many have improved only marginally and some not at all.
Indeed, it will take more than an improving economy to turn around the factors that keep poor families from getting on a path to greater opportunity. There are steps that we can take to improve lives – and in the process, help make our economy stronger and more durable.
We think that adult education and skills training and access to quality jobs with good benefits are critical areas where policy changes can make a meaningful difference.
• One of the key pathways out of poverty is through education and skills development. But for many working families, post-secondary education is becoming less affordable and less attainable. This is particularly true for low-skilled workers.
Colorado ranks 10th-worst in state resources allocated for adult education and literacy per adult without a high school degree. In fact, we provide no state funding; any money spent is in the form of gifts and grants.
Two facts are important here: About 70 percent of jobs will require some level of post-secondary education or training by 2019, and most of the workers who will fill those jobs are already in the workforce. That means many adults will need schooling or training to advance in our evolving economy.
• The portion of low-wage workers in our workforce – individuals over 18 earning a wage below the family poverty level – has grown by 23 percent since 2004. In our 2012 report, we found that 516,050 workers – nearly one out of four workers aged 18 and over – were in that group.
Individuals in low-wage jobs are unable to put money away for the future, and most of these jobs do not offer health insurance or retirement benefits.
• In 2012, nearly 60 percent of Colorado’s workforce did not have access to employer-provided retirement benefits – either a pension or a 401(k)-type plan. That means many workers are at risk of having to delay retirement or rely on assistance to meet financial needs in old age.
There are several actions we can take to address these issues.
First, invest in adult education. A $1 million appropriation would expand education programs for thousands of low-skilled Coloradans and provide them with the first step toward improving their job skills.
Second, better coordinate adult basic education with skill training at our community colleges. Research shows that programs along the lines of legislation pending in the Colorado legislature (HB13-1005) will help more adults earn credentials or degrees.
Third, make Colorado’s Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit permanent by enacting the Working Families Opportunity Act (SB13-001) so that low-income workers can retain more of their earnings. These credits would help families living in or just above poverty and would stretch the earnings of those in low-wage jobs.
Finally, consider making it easier for workers to save for retirement through payroll deductions, much as California has done with its Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program.
By taking these actions, we can help put more hard-working Colorado families on the path to economic opportunity. When they thrive, our businesses and economy expand, benefiting us all.
Kathleen Hallgren is a public interest fellow at the Denver-based Bell Policy Center, a non-partisan policy research center that advocates public policies that reflect progressive values.
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