Almost every day, we hear from national or state experts that the economic recovery is continuing, even accelerating. We hear that we're well beyond the worst of the recession, and we can expect more improvement in months ahead.
Pardon me for not believing it.
For every positive story about increased sales-tax revenues, there's another about businesses closing. Reports tell us that the local unemployment rate has gone down to 9.2 percent, but then we find out that hundreds, if not thousands, have given up trying to find jobs as good as they once had. And even if that 9.2 percent were correct, it's well more than double what the Colorado Springs unemployment rate was for most of 2007.
That doesn't sound like much of a recovery. We also haven't been hearing much about new-home construction, and the real estate market remains slow in most areas.
Now comes some sobering data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, pegging the total nonfarm jobs for the Colorado Springs area in April at 243,000, their lowest since April 2003. And in the usually good-paying professional and business services category, 1,200 jobs vanished in April (meaning more than 2,000 have disappeared from there in the past year).
Even with an increase in low-paying jobs, that doesn't mean a stellar economy. Especially when every tank of gas means shelling out $40, $50 or more.
Let's revisit an honest gauge of what's really happening in El Paso County — the number of children in K-through-12 schools who are receiving free or reduced-price lunches because of their families' low income. We last checked these levels 15 months ago ("We're already poor, folks," Feb. 4, 2010), and they painted a bleak picture for the 2009-10 school year.
It hasn't come around in 2010-11. For most school districts, even some in affluent areas, the percentage of free or reduced-cost lunches actually has increased. And enrollment is down.
Start with Harrison School District 2, in the city's mostly depressed south and southeast neighborhoods. D-2's enrollment has slid by nearly 600 to 10,712, and the number getting help for lunches is 7,632 — 71.2 percent, as opposed to 67.6 percent a year ago. That's not recovery.
As for Colorado Springs School District 11, total enrollment for the county's largest district has dipped slightly to 28,746, according to state reports. While the number receiving lunch assistance has also gone down, from 14,985 to 14,902, the percentage has risen from 50.55 percent to 51.8 percent.
How about the better-off areas? Lewis-Palmer District 38 has gone from 8.57 percent to 10.2 percent, and Academy District 20 from 10.3 percent to 11.3 percent. Only in Cheyenne Mountain District 12 (14.6 to 14.3 percent) and Falcon District 49 (18.8 to 18.6 percent) do you see even a tiny drop. That's not encouraging.
For El Paso County as a whole, K-through-12 enrollment dropped from 109,246 to 106,960, but the free or reduced-cost lunch numbers climbed from 37,361 to 37,692 — or from 34.2 to 35.5 percent. (Perhaps we should be concerned about the county-wide enrollment decrease itself, considering that we just ended a decade when the county's overall population grew from about 517,000 to 622,000.)
That's the story in numbers. Then there's Gordon Riley, a former librarian at Mitchell High School and later CollegeAmerica, a guy with a master's degree, whose unemployment woes were first addressed here two years ago ("Humanizing the hard times," March 19, 2009). After trying since September 2007, Riley still is bouncing between jobs, mostly part-time. He reports that he's "$900 behind on rent, and a month behind on utilities and phone," side effects of his extended jobless benefits being inexplicably delayed during the past six months.
For him, and for so many other thousands of households around Colorado Springs, we're a long, long way from a real economic recovery.
And the first step in dealing with a problem is admitting that it exists. Or, in this case, still exists.
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