My Side |

My Side

Andy Hartman

Next month, Jackie Trainer will receive her master’s degree. She’s come along way from working as a waitress and telemarketer while living in a shelter for battered women.

“I knew I needed to go to college if I ever wanted to get anywhere,” she said. “I was determined to take control of my own life.” Today, Trainer’s determination has landed her a job as the director of a local nonprofit organization.

Trainer’s story is one we all want to believe in – the one about hard work paying off. And Colorado is a hard working state.

Our workforce participation rate, 72 percent, is the 10th highest in the nation.

But for Trainer and the more than 120,000 families that struggle to make ends meet, that dream remains elusive.

For nearly one out of five families in our state, effort is not enough.

Who are these individuals and families? Why are they not able to make work pay?

And is there more we can do to help them help themselves?

Over the last year, the Bell Policy Center has been looking at the lives of Colorado’s working poor as part of a multi-state project supported by the Annie E. Casey and Ford foundations.

While hard work and personal responsibility are critical to success, we concluded that Colorado could and should be a stronger partner in helping families become self-sufficient.

Our research provides a look into the day-to-day struggles of low-income working families. In 60 percent of these families, an adult does not have health insurance; 80 percent spend more than one-third of their income on housing.

Almost one-half are headed by an adult who lacks a high school diploma, the ninth highest rate in the country.

In all three areas – housing, health care, and education – it is harder to be low-income and working in Colorado than in most other states in the country.

While there are many reasons for this, our research points to the lack of education and skills as the most important cause.

Colorado’s high school graduation rate, 68 percent, ranks us 35th in the nation.

We also have a serious problem with access to higher education.

The data is quite clear: it takes at least a certificate or associate’s degree from a community college in order to qualify for a job that pays self-sufficiency wages.

Colorado ranks in the middle of all the states in terms of giving young adults a chance for college and is one of the worst states in providing opportunity for higher education to minority students.

The state also needs to invest more in education and training. For example, Colorado is the only state that puts none of it own money into helping adults earn a GED or high school diploma and/or improve their English language skills.

Some of the additional ways we could help make work pay include: need-based financial aid, subsidies for child care, and affordable health insurance. In the case of health care and child care, every dollar of state money would be matched by a federal contribution.

Of course, it will be impossible for the state to make these wise investments, let alone head off dismantling our current lean set of services, if we don’t do something about our current fiscal crisis. And at the heart of that problem is TABOR, which is strangling opportunity out of the state’s budget and stopping Colorado from being a partner in helping low-income workers.

Specifically, we need to change the revenue limit in TABOR so that it reflects the true cost of providing adequate services. The bottom line is that we have the capacity to do more to help and we should – because families, businesses, and the state will all benefit.

– Andy Hartman is the Bell Policy Center director of policy and research, and Spiros Protopsaltis is a policy and research associate. The Bell is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting opportunity and self-sufficiency in Colorado. View the full report

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