By Terry Benjamin Boulder Daily Camera
EFAA began in 1918 as a way for neighbors to help neighbors through temporary hard times. Almost daily we see news reports about the challenges facing low-income families. Visits to Emergency Family Assistance Association from Boulder and Broomfield County families have increased 24 percent in the past year. They come for food, assistance with rent, energy bills and emergency shelter.
Today, more and more of the families we help are working, but at wages too low to live on. As a result they rely on EFAA and on important public benefits such as SNAP food assistance, Medicaid and child care assistance to make ends meet every month. With well-paying jobs in short supply and costs to raise a family dramatically increasing, an increasing number of Boulder County families are hurting.
Some recent reports:
· One in five children under five in Boulder County lives in poverty, and child poverty has increased in Colorado faster than any other state. The stress of poverty is particularly harmful to children and can have long lasting effects. Boulder County enrollments in SNAP food assistance benefits have increased 150 percent since 2008 and Medicaid enrollments have increased 63 percent.
· Even though the Colorado economy is growing, incomes fell for the bottom four fifths of Colorado households since 2007, rising only for the top fifth. This trend is alarming and is affected by the loss of mid-wage jobs, stagnant and declining wages, underemployment and part time hours. Household incomes are not keeping up with increasing costs of housing, education, energy and health care. The Colorado minimum wage of $7.64 is not enough to keep even a single person out of poverty. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation in the last thirty years, it would be around $11.
· A single mother with two young children needs to earn $29/hour to be entirely self-sufficient in Boulder County, yet half of the jobs in Boulder County pay less than $25/hour. 41 percent of families with a single mother live in poverty.
· More than one in three Boulder County renter households pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing, and rents increased more than 10 percent just in the last year. Over 1,750 school-age children in Boulder County are without permanent homes.
The recession has affected many families and businesses but poverty is not just a result of the recent downturn. There are broader issues of economic and public policy at play. Of the jobs with the highest projected growth in Boulder County in the next ten years, one in four are in sectors such as leisure/hospitality, retail, and personal services that pay less than $15/hour, frequently without benefits. One quarter of Boulder County's mid-wage jobs have forever disappeared in the last ten years. Colorado's state budget is constrained so that education and important work supports such as the earned income tax credit and child care assistance have been cut. In the U.S. Congress, the House voted to cut over $16 billion from nutrition assistance, and cut Pell Grants that reduce the cost of higher education, help for the long-term unemployed, and assistance for rental housing.
There is not a simple answer to poverty, but we know that it takes a combination of individual commitment, support from the faith community and community organizations like EFAA, an adequate safety net, good education, access to health care, more jobs that pay decent wages and benefits, and possibilities to accumulate assets and retirement savings.
We have to face these economic and political realities. Ignoring these trends, blaming working families, walking away from support of effective public programs, cutting education and other investments, and continuing to push the problem to local governments and faith-based and community nonprofits cannot get us there.
Terry Benjamin is Executive Director, Emergency Family Assistance Association.
1674 Yellow Pine Ave
Boulder, CO 80304