Guest opinion: Economic recovery belongs to all Coloradoans
By many statistical measures, it seems that Colorado’s economy continued to rebound in 2014. The state posted the fourth-highest job creation record in the country, according to Forbes magazine. Looking ahead, a recent forecast from University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business shows the state will add an estimated 61,000 jobs in 2015.
Yet, despite these seemingly encouraging numbers, too many Coloradans simply aren’t enjoying the fruits of the state’s economic recovery. According to “The State of Working Colorado 2014” report, published by the Colorado Center on Law & Policy, the low-wage workers who fueled the recovery are still struggling to make ends meet.
Available online at cclponline.org, the report is intended to inform the public policy dialogue at the Capitol and across the state. It is a collection of critical data designed to look beyond broad-based economic indicators to better understand how the state’s economy is working.
Even as the economy improved and the cost of basic living expenditures continued to rise, the report shows that low-wage workers saw little to no income growth during the past few decades. Among the report’s other findings:
• While the number of low- and high-wage jobs has increased, the number of mid-wage jobs has declined by 25,500 since 2007. These mid-wage jobs are the pathway into the middle class for those without a college education.
• The employment-to-population ratio has remained steady for prime working-age adults (ages 25-54) in recent years, signaling that declining unemployment is likely due to people dropping out of the labor market.
• One in five employed Coloradans works part-time involuntarily — still above pre-recession levels.
• About one in five black and Latino residents looking for work are either underemployed or unemployed — a rate nearly twice that of white Coloradans.
• Between 2007 and 2013, the real median household in Colorado dropped by $3,200 to $58,823 — a 5.2 percent decline. The good news is that since 2010, the real median income has held steady, but at this pace, it may take several years for median income to recover to the pre-recession this year.
• Nearly half of the $160 billion in income earned in Colorado in 2012 went to the wealthiest 20 percent of households. Colorado ranks among the top 20 states in the nation with the highest levels of income inequality.
As the Colorado General Assembly prepares to reconvene, policymakers and the general public should keep in mind that the “positive” economic forecasts don’t tell the full story of Colorado’s economy. To sustain meaningful and enduring economic growth, we need to consider effective legislation that will enable more Coloradans to break out of poverty and earn enough to become self-sufficient.
Fortunately, state lawmakers are already taking steps to improve the economic security and the quality of life for poor families in Colorado, including a bipartisan measure that would ensure that child-support payments directly benefit children when custodial parents receive subsidies from federal assistance programs.
Last year, the Legislature formed a commission to examine the causes of rising health care costs, which stretch many families’ budgets. A recent study from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau showed that medical debt is hurting the creditworthiness of 43 million Americans. To rectify this situation and other, the Colorado Commission on Affordable Healthcare will convene throughout 2015 and hopefully recommend policy remedies to make our health care dollars go farther and ultimately help Coloradans at all income levels.
Simply put, too many Coloradans don’t earn enough from their jobs to meet their basic needs without public or private assistance. Creating more low-wage jobs won’t help low-income families out of poverty and could in time stifle economic progress for the whole state. However, growing public awareness could improve matters in the long run — especially if it inspires and reinforces advocacy and thoughtful public policy.
An obvious way we could address these needs is by raising the minimum wage — the regulatory floor from which everything else rises. Until we reset that floor to something that more accurately approximates a livable wage for full-time workers, the demand for public assistance will continue to weigh on taxpayers. While voters can only raise the minimum wage through a constitutional amendment, it’s one sure-fire strategy for increasing broad-based prosperity throughout the state. Addressing the high costs of working through education and child care would also help many Colorado families as well.
After acknowledging the problems inherent in wage disparity, there’s hope that individuals, communities, businesses and lawmakers will forge new solutions for the betterment of Colorado’s low-wage workers in 2015 and beyond.
Claire Levy is a former state legislator and the executive director of the Colorado Center on Law & Policy, a nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes justice, economic security and access to health care for low-income Coloradans.
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