Charlie Brennan Special to The Colorado Sun, Dec 2020
With more Coloradans facing economic hardship amid the second wave of COVID-19, the disparities along racial and geographic lines have become painfully more apparent.
Economic data gathered during the pandemic shows that job losses have been greatest among Coloradans with low wages – particularly in the hospitality and leisure sectors. Jobs lost in these sectors may not return for a long time – if at all — threatening Coloradans’ employment, financial stability, housing and food security for months and years to come.
Unfortunately, the gaps in Colorado’s economy have been widening for years, according to Colorado Center on Law and Policy’s new report, “2020 State of Working Colorado.”
Among our findings:
Wage growth for most Coloradans has been meager over the past two decades: While wages for most Coloradans stagnated, the growth in wages among the top 10% of earners has increased. Increasing wage inequality makes it increasingly difficult for those in the bottom 90% to keep up with rising cost of food, housing and health care.
With the dramatic loss of jobs experienced in March and April of this year, a greater number of Coloradans are relying on even less income to make ends meet.
There are significant disparities across race/ethnicity, gender and disability statuses throughout Colorado: White Coloradans experienced poverty at a lower rate than the overall state rate of 9.6% in 2018, while people of color experienced poverty at much higher rates. In 2018, Black Coloradans and American Indians/Alaska Natives experienced poverty at twice the rate of the overall population at 18% and 18.7% respectively.
As with wages, a household’s income can vary tremendously depending on the race or ethnicity of the householder. While the median income for white and Asian households were both higher than the state median in 2018, the median incomes for multiracial, Latinx, Black and American Indian/Alaska Native households were significantly less than the state median.
Almost all of Colorado’s labor force is found in urban counties while many counties have seen their labor force shrink: The share of the state’s labor force living in an urban county has increased from 86.7% in 2010 to 88.2%, while the share living in rural areas decreased from 13.3% to 11.8% over the same period.
All told, the report shows that too many working families in Colorado are struggling to make ends meet while the wealth generated in our economy has been increasingly distributed to a small few.
In other words, our economy is not truly working for most Coloradans.
This was the case even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Though we don’t know when this public health emergency will end and when our national and state economies will begin to recover, these findings show why we should not settle for simply a return to a “normal” economy that failed to provide economic security for many Coloradans.
As pandemic-related problems mount, we are thankful that Gov. Jared Polis and state legislators took action to prevent further harm by calling for a special session of the Colorado legislature to address issues related to housing and rental assistance, support for child care providers, food security issues, utilities assistance, the public health response and expanding broadband access for students and educators in areas that lack digital connectivity.
We are also heartened that the state provided relief for small businesses that employ many of the state’s workers.
Because many of the issues noted in our “State of Working Colorado” report are long-term, systemic problems, we are optimistic that state lawmakers will focus their efforts on creating a more resilient and equitable state economy that supports hard-working Coloradans in diverse communities across the state for the longer term.
Among the measures that Colorado Center on Law and Policy supports for the 2021 legislative session are eviction court reforms, increasing funding for the eviction legal defense program, establishing inclusionary zoning to let local governments set affordable housing requirements for new units and legislation to ensure that more Coloradans can access health coverage.
As Colorado’s General Assembly prepares to convene in January — and with new leadership preparing to take the reins in Washington — we’re hopeful that the fallout from the pandemic will inspire elected officials to pass legislation that transforms our state and national economies into economies where everyone has a chance to succeed.
Charles Brennan is deputy director of research for Colorado Center on Law and Policy,a nonprofit research, legislative and legal advocacy organization committed to advancing racial equity and remove systemic barriers in the fight against poverty.