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The Dark Side of the Growth Boom in Colorado Springs

Poor and nearpoor kids in record numbers


The United States is celebrating the longest economic expansion in the nation's history and glowing media accounts routinely detail an embarrassment of riches on Wall Street. But there's a dark side to all the champagne popping and burgeoning investment portfolios.

A new national study by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) reports that more than 13 million kids aged 18 and under live in poverty -- an increase of 15 percent from two decades ago.

In Colorado, 13.4 percent of the state's children live in poverty, up from 9.8 percent in 1979.

The picture is bleaker still in economic-booming El Paso County, where, according to the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, the median household income in Colorado Springs rose a whopping 65 percent in the past 10 years.

Yet in the midst of all that shiny affluence, nearly one in seven (14.1 percent) of the county's 133,600 kids under 18 lived in poverty in 1999.

"It's safe to say that poverty in El Paso County runs above the state average," said Colorado Children's Campaign director Barbara O'Brien. The Children's Campaign, a statewide non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of at-risk children through research and public awareness and serves as an information conduit for NCCP, recently published the sobering reality as part of its annual KidsCount Report Card.

The poor and near-poor

The federal government sets the official poverty line as an income of $13,656, for a family of three, which translates to slightly more than $250 a week before taxes. For a family of four, the poverty line is $16,453 -- or slightly more than $300 a week -- before taxes.

The situation is even worse if you take into account the number of children living in "near-poverty." The government defines "near poverty" as 185 percent of poverty-level income, which translates into $25,264 for a family of three, and $30,447 for a family of four.

According to NCCP figures, 44 percent of U.S. kids aged three and under now live in poor or near-poor households.

Children from these homes qualify for federally funded free or reduced lunch programs. In Colorado Springs, more than half -- 56 percent -- of the kids in Harrison School District 2 qualify for free or reduced lunches.

In other area school districts, 36 percent of the children in Fountain School District and 30 percent in District 11 qualify. Another 24 percent in the Widefield School District and 14 percent in Manitou Springs participate in the program.

The city's two most affluent districts, Cheyenne Mountain D-12 and Academy District 20, each report five percent participation in the free and reduced school lunch program.

These percentages are significant because, as the NCCP notes, "New research has shown that near-poverty has nearly the same negative impact on children's health and development as poverty."

NCCP director Dr. Lawrence Aber said that both poor and near-poor children are significantly more prone to hunger or malnutrition, lower quality medical care, exposure to domestic violence or abuse, juvenile delinquency, lower language, cognitive and emotional development, dropping out of school, becoming teen parents, and adult underemployment.

The changing face of poverty

Colorado Springs is far from the inner-city nightmares of such urban centers as New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, but children in this city are increasingly in the same boat, according to the NCCP report. The study notes that the ranks of the poor and near-poor are burgeoning with non-minority kids from two-parent families that have at least one working parent.

Four years ago, 34 percent of the poor children in the U.S. were white, 31 percent Hispanic, and 29 percent black. For the first time, there are now more poor kids living in suburban and rural areas than in the cities.

The poverty rate of children under three years old in suburbia grew 61 percent in the '90s.

An even more significant change is the fact that nearly two out of three poor children (64 percent) live in families having at least one working parent. Kids living in a two-parent family with at least one employed parent were 250 percent more likely to be poor in 1995 than 20 years before. And, between 1991 and 1995, the poverty rate for children in such families increased by 13 percent.

Indeed, the families living at poverty or near-poverty levels -- the "working poor" -- constitute one of the fastest-growing population sectors in the United States.

This is happening at the same time that the welfare roles are shrinking. The national welfare reforms enacted in 1997 put timelines on moving welfare recipients into the workforce, and El Paso County has cut the number of families on welfare by over half in the past three years.

According to Barbara Drake, deputy director of the El Paso County Department of Human Services, the county assists families after they leave welfare by continuing to provide services in mental health, domestic violence, substance abuse, child care needs, continuance of Medicaid, car repairs, vocational training and employment-search help.

Dramatically changing economy

Why, then, are there more young children in El Paso County living in poverty and near-poverty than ever before?

After all, according to the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, over the past 10 years, the median household income in Colorado Springs jumped from $29,746 to $49,225. During that time, the percentage of Springs households with incomes of more than $50,000 increased by 49 percent.

But the numbers can be misleading, and the Colorado Springs job market offers no sure-bet escape from poverty.

"The Colorado Springs economy is heavily high-tech," said O'Brien, "It works only for people with education beyond high school. A significant number of the jobs available in El Paso County that are open to high school grads or less don't pay enough to keep pace with the galloping cost of living increases of recent years.

"The well-off are better-off than ever before, but those employed at the low end of the economic ladder are falling farther behind."

Another factor drowning the working poor is the skyrocketing cost of housing. A 1999 study by the Colorado Division of Housing reports that the average rent increased by 61 percent in the state's metropolitan areas in the '90s, but the family income of renters went up by only 13 percent. More than 88,000 families in Colorado now spend more than half their income on rent.

Housing in Colorado Springs is particularly tight. According to the Apartment Association of Colorado Springs, the overall vacancy rate is a tight 3.9 percent, and the average rent has zoomed to $630 a month.

For the working poor, it's even tighter. There are a scant 46 affordable rental units per 100 renter households available to families with poverty-level or lower incomes. To meet current needs, Colorado Springs would have to offer an additional 37,000 affordable housing units, according to a City Council-commissioned study that was completed last year.

It's not surprising, then, that Jeanne Holtz, director of the local Red Cross shelter, reports a big increase in the number of families living at the shelter.

"Most of the adults staying here are employed," she said. "The main problem seems to be wages. A significant number of jobs don't pay a living wage for a person with two, three, four kids and a wife to support.

"On top of that, affordable housing is all but nonexistent. We're in a real overflow situation. All 90 of our family beds are filled. We have more kids in the shelter at present than I've seen in years.

"It's really tough to break the poverty cycle," Holtz noted. "Even with a job."

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