A family of two adults and two children needs to earn an estimated $34 an hour just to get by in Denver.
Airline worker Archie Archelus and his wife Rose have two kids at home, one in middle school and the other an older teen for whom they’re paying college tuition. Together they earn $26.89 and hour, short of the $34 estimated as necessary to make ends meet without public or private assistance by a researcher who put together the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado for the nonprofit Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
The 2018 Self-Sufficiency Standard report released Tuesday is part of a series aimed at informing economic decision-making at the political and policy-making level. At the family level, the Archeluses and others are sometimes faced with deciding how much to cut back on groceries in order to pay the rent of the mortgage note.
Diana Pearce, who directs the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, developed the standard and explored it in a three-part report for the Colorado Center on Law and Policy.
Pearce factored in the costs of the basics — housing, food, childcare, transportation, taxes. Her work was nuanced, with costs adjusted for different kinds of families. A single mother of two young children, for instance, would have to earn just over $31 an hour to be self-sufficient. The budgets Pearce used in her models don’t even leave room for a pizza outing on a Saturday night, let alone a medical emergency.
Rose Archelus was recently injured on the job working for a caterer at Denver International Airport. Archie Archelus, who also works at the airport in catering, but for United, said she may have to stop working.
“If my wife doesn’t have a job, I don’t know what I’d do to pay the mortgage,” he said. “What I’m making is not enough.”
Pearce said in her report: “Wages have become inadequate to meet basic needs.”
“While the unemployment rate in Colorado has returned to levels prior to the Great Recession, Colorado families continue to struggle with costs that are rising faster than wages,” she wrote.
In another report earlier this year titled “Exploring Colorado’s Housing Affordability Challenges in All of Their Complexity,” researchers Jennifer Newcomer and Phyllis Resnick noted that since 2011, wages in the state have increased 11.4 percent while the cost of homes for sale has increased 48.7 percent and rents 46.2 percent.
Across the state, self-sufficiency expert Pearce found one in four households — 430,000 — don’t earn enough to cover basics. The populous city of Denver was home to 16 percent of those households.
“Poverty has become working poverty,” she said, saying 88 percent of families with working-age members in Colorado who don’t earn the self-sufficiency standard have at least one working member.
Chaer Robert, who manages the Family Economic Security Program for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy, was struck by how many families were struggling, and how that might be hidden because families were helping one another.
“It’s not just bad budgeting skills,” she said, saying people who are better off might be quick to judge without considering how they are supported by benefits by other names.
“They might look at that other person and say, ‘They’re getting government help because they’re living in government housing,’ without realizing the government is helping them through the childcare tax credit or low-interest government mortgages.”
In the end, we all need help sometimes. But low-income families with young children are among the most vulnerable.
“Colorado families struggling to make ends meet are neither a small nor a marginal group,” Pearce wrote. “Individuals and married couples with children, households in which adults work full time and people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds account for substantial portions of those struggling to make ends meet in Colorado.”
Housing is typically the largest single expense for such families. A mother might cut back on food to ensure her children eat. A father might skip buying a warm coat for winter. But the rent or mortgage bill can’t be adjusted at will.
While Pearce said families can take steps such as saving for retirement or pursuing higher education to improve their situations, “a broad-based policy effort is required.”
The possible policy fixes include improving wages, benefits, and public aid such as child care assistance, she said.
“The challenge now before Colorado is how to make it possible for all households in the state to earn enough money and receive enough temporary work supports to meet their basic needs,” Pearce said.
The issue has preoccupied Teva Sienicki, who is CEO of Metro Caring. Her organization runs a food pantry near Saint Joseph Hospital and also offers people job training, help paying the light bill, advice on signing up for federal food aid and dealing with eviction notices.
“More people are having to rely on us as a line in their budget,” she said. “More and more working people.”
Sienicki said she is sometimes asked whether she offers financial planning advice to people who come to Metro Caring for help.
“It kind of drives me crazy,” she said. “Because when you sit down with the folks and do the math with them, you see their housing alone is eating up 80 percent of their income.”
Sienicki said nonprofits like hers are being asked to do more as the middle class shrinks.
“We don’t have the infrastructure in place to be an adequate safety net,” she said, adding that while government intervention is not the only answer, “there’s a place for the government to be involved in a robust market economy in order to protect its citizens.”
Airline worker Archie Archelus, who like Sienicki was not involved in Pearce’s study, is taking steps himself in one of the policy areas she highlighted. He is a leader in Unite Here Local 23, a union that represents airport workers. He said labor needs to organize to press employers on basic needs, such as healthcare. His own monthly insurance costs were almost $500, he said.
Local 23 got an initiative on the May ballot that asks Denver voters to increase the minimum wage for workers at the airport to $15 by 2021. Colorado’s minimum wage is now $10.20 and will rise to $12 in 2020.
After the union launched its successful campaign to get the wage proposal on the ballot this summer, Mayor Michael Hancock announced he would consider raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for city employees as well as to contractors and other businesses that operate in city-owned buildings like the airport.
“I think the mayor’s going to make it happen,” Archie Archelus said. “Everything you do, you’ve got to put (in) your faith.”