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How much is enough to make it?

Colo. a pricey place to raise family, new calculation finds
Jennifer Wall is a single mother who has to rely on public support to raise her daughter, Sydney, in Englewood, on Wall’s $12.50-an-hour wages. The “self-sufficiency” wage for her family in Arapahoe County is $20.92 an hour.

How much money do you need to make in Colorado to survive without outside help? A new calculation of the cost of living shows it’s getting harder for families to meet their needs.

On average, Coloradans needed to make 53 percent more money to get by without public assistance in 2015, as compared to 2001, according to the current “Self-Sufficiency Standard” released June 11 by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.

In La Plata County, a single parent with two young children now needs to earn between 51 to 60 percent more than they did 14 years ago to meet the same standard.

Self-sufficiency is defined as the amount an individual or family needs to earn to meet their basic needs without public assistance, such as Medicaid or public housing or private help, such as donations from a food bank or free baby-sitting from a relative.

The standard is calculated by researchers at the University of Washington, who use data from agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau, on housing, child care, food, transportation, taxes, emergency savings and miscellaneous costs such as clothing, shoes and diapers. The calculations also account for a family’s potential earnings through tax credits.

In Colorado, the wage you need to be self-sufficient depends on the number of working adults and the age of your children.

Locally, a single adult in La Plata County needs to make about $11.15 an hour to cover necessary expenses, according to the study. But that estimate is on the low side because the study did not look at housing specific to this county. It probably is closer to $12.90 an hour, said Donna Graves, an independent consultant, who often works for the Region 9 Economic Development District in Durango.

For those with children, a sufficient wage is much higher. A single parent with one child needs to earn $25.11, Graves said. Since she started studying the minimum wage many years ago, it never has been enough to sustain a family in the county, she said.

“Generally, I would say the gap continues to widen,” she said.

Those working for minimum wage here are likely working multiple jobs or relying on public assistance, she said.

Making it possible for workers to survive without taxpayer-supported programs is one of the reasons Maureen Maliszewski, director of La Plata County Thrive! Living Wage Coalition, is encouraging businesses to pay higher wages locally.

“That definitely has a positive affect for all of us if we’re not having to supplement those employees,” she said.

It also can boost the local economy because workers in that earning bracket spend their money in the community, she said.

Although individual municipalities can’t raise the minimum wage in Colorado, as they can in other states, Maliszewski wants to see the conversation continue because inequality is a growing problem.

But simply mandating a higher minimum wage may be an oversimplified answer for a complex problem, said Laura Lewis Marchino, assistant director of Region 9.

“There’s so many unintended consequences with raising a minimum wage,” Marchino said.

However, she recognizes many struggle with low wages, and she would like employees to have room to move up within an organization so they are not permanently making minimum wage. In addition, Colorado employers in general hire more high-skilled workers from outside the state than natives.

“We need a bigger emphasis on training people that are already in the workforce,” she said.

The Durango Herald brings you this report in partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS I-News. Learn more at rmpbs.org/news. Contact Anna Boiko-Weyrauch at abw@rmpbs.org.

On the Net

Explore an interactive graphic with the self-sufficiency wage for your county at bit.ly/ColoradoSelfSufficiency.

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