Childhood poverty data called misleading
Colorado has double the improvement rate of U.S. overall, but the numbers don’t show whole picture.
Childhood poverty decreased in Colorado at twice the national rate from 2010 to 2015, signaling a faster recovery from the Great Recession here than in the country as a whole.
But Front Range food banks and shelters say the Census statistics released this week are misleading as they see more and more working-poor families struggling to cover rising rents, food costs and unanticipated financial stressors, such as illnesses and brokendown cars.
“The numbers are not always reflective of reality,” said Weld Food Bank executive director Bob O’Connor.
Colorado had 183,216 children under the age of 18 living in poverty in 2015, down 11.6 percent from 2010, the height of the Great Recession, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the U.S. as a whole has seen only a 4.8 percent decrease, with a little more than 15 million kids living in poverty last year.
For all ages, poverty in Colorado went down 5.7 percent to 614,410 in 2015 from 2010. The U.S. was flat compared with 2010, with 46.2 million people living in poverty last year.
Colorado had the nation’s seventh-biggest drop. Vermont led the way with a 20.1 percent decrease in childhood poverty.
“It 100 percent has to do with the fact that the economic conditions in the state are so much better than they were five years ago,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner.
Colorado’s average unemployment was 3.9 percent last year, down from 8.7 percent in 2010, she said.
But that economic growth has left many families behind, Mile High Behavioral Healthcare CEO Robert Dorshimer said. The nonprofit runs three shelters, including one for families that is located
on the Adams County side of Aurora.
“While people were getting jobs and doing better, and the economy was doing better, and as everyone was drinking and eating steak, what we noticed is we had more families lining up to get a meal,” Dorshimer said.
The Aurora shelter two years ago started to see an increase in working poor families who were pushed out of Denver by rising rents, he said. Families were forced to put more money toward housing, cutting into budgets for food, school supplies and clothes for kids.
Adams County was the only Front Range county to experience an increase in childhood poverty, increasing 5.6 percent from 2010 to 2015.
But that’s only a small part of the picture. The county saw an uptick in childhood poverty in 2011 so although the number of children living in poverty was higher in 2015 than in 2010, the total was 19.6 percent lower than in 2011.
Weld County had the largest drop in childhood poverty from 2010 to 2015 among the Front Range counties, decreasing 21.1 percent. But food bank director O’Connor said demand at his agency’s feeding program last year went up by 13 percent, the highest increase since 2006.
He said the food bank is getting more requests than ever, including from school food pantries and backpack programs that provide food for kids to take home.
“When we look at poverty numbers, that’s not just the population we serve,” O’Connor said. “A significant number of people we serve are living right above that poverty level.”
A family of four with income of less than $24,300 per year is considered impoverished under federal Health and Human Services guidelines.
Those families don’t qualify for government assistance programs, he said. If an illness strikes, the car starts having problems or any other unforeseeable event occurs, families don’t have enough money to cover it.
Food Bank of the Rockies spokeswoman Janie Gianotsos said U.S. Department of Agriculture numbers on food insecurity show that the need is persistent.
From 2013 to 2015, 12.1 percent of Coloradans were food insecure, 2 percent lower that from 2010 to 2012, but nearly the same as the period from 2003 to 2005, according to a USDA study released in September.
“Even though a family may not be in poverty,” Gianotsos said, “they may still have to make some tough choices during the month.”
“They really fall through the cracks,” she said.