August 13, 2014 News » Cover Story

In the poorhouse now 

Colorado Springs has seen a big rise in poverty since 2000. Here's why.

Colorado Springs has grown a lot since 2000. It's also grown a lot poorer, according to a study by the Brookings Institution and other data.

Researcher Elizabeth Kneebone looked at the growth and spread of concentrated poverty from 2000 through the "Great Recession" and "sluggish" recovery of 2008-12 in her Brookings study (tiny.cc/csbrookings) and found that cities across the country were seeing a growth in poor neighborhoods. The study says that's concerning because areas that are "high-poverty" (20-plus percent poverty) and "distressed" (40-plus percent) are at increased risk for poor health outcomes, "higher crime rates, failing schools, and fewer job opportunities."

The problem, the study explains, is that poor people living in poor neighborhoods suffer under the "double burden" of facing not only their own personal poverty but also the added social disadvantages of their deeply impoverished surroundings. (Think, for instance, of how a poorer neighborhood can attract crime.)

Kneebone found that the number of "distressed" neighborhoods in the U.S. climbed by almost three-quarters nationally. (Poverty was defined by the study as individuals and families living below the 2012 federal poverty line — $23,492 a year for a family of four.)

While most poor people still live in cities, it's the suburban poor neighborhoods that grew at the fastest pace, with populations living in "distressed" neighborhoods ballooning 139 percent, or nearly three times the pace of poor urban neighborhoods.

And that's where the Colorado Springs metro area stood out.

When Kneebone looked at "suburban neighborhoods" (most people here would consider them rural) around the Springs — anywhere within El Paso and Teller counties, but outside city limits — she found that the Springs outpaced every metro area in the nation for the growth of "suburban" neighborhoods with poverty rates exceeding 20 percent. The Springs' "suburbs" went from having no such neighborhoods in 2000 to seven in 2008-12. (In this study, "neighborhoods" are defined by U.S. Census tracts, which average 4,000 residents.)

Overall, the metro area still ranks below average for poverty rates, and for the share of poor residents living in high-poverty and distressed neighborhoods. But the Springs has hardly been left out of the national trend toward growing poverty.

Consider: During the time period of the study, the Springs metro area, including the urban area, grew from one to two distressed neighborhoods, and from six to 30 "high-poverty" neighborhoods. In raw numbers, the poor population skyrocketed from 40,916 in 2000 to 76,720 in 2008-12.

Kneebone's findings get a lot of support from school district data (see chart, opposite page), which show huge growth in the percentage of area children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a commonly accepted measure of poverty. (To qualify for even a reduced-price lunch, a family of four cannot make more than $44,123 a year.) That trend holds even across traditionally "wealthy" districts like Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 and Academy School District 20.

Kneebone's study can't answer all the questions it presents. But when combined with local data, a clearer picture emerges of how the city got here.

All over the map

One might question if the growth in poverty in the Springs is simply a reflection of our overall population growth. After all, the U.S. Census lists Colorado Springs' population in 2000 as 361,867. By 2010, it had grown to 416,427.

But even considering that growth, poverty in the city has exploded. The U.S. Census shows that the poverty rate in the city in 2000 was 6.1 percent. By 2008-12, it had grown to 13.7 percent.

Kneebone notes that while our growth in "suburban" poverty may steal the headlines, "The city also saw its poor population grow at a pace well above average."

As far as the growth in poverty on the neighborhood level is concerned, it is worth noting that Census tracts have shifted since 2000, to reflect population changes. Some tracts are completely different, especially along the city's edges. Thus, the study is not always comparing apples to apples, especially in growing areas. Tracts in the older parts of the city, however, have remained fairly consistent and better show the growth of poverty.

The study shows that northern neighborhoods are largely wealthy, while large swaths in the southern and southeastern parts of the city have gotten poorer, especially near Fort Carson, which grew rapidly over the study period. For instance, the base had 13,000 active-duty soldiers in fiscal year 2003 — a number that leaves out thousands of family members and civilian employees who also impact population growth. The base currently has 26,000 active-duty soldiers. And the lowest-ranking soldiers, E1-E4, with less than two years' experience, make between $18,378 and $23,994 annually.

In the central portions of the city, it appears that many established neighborhoods simply bumped up a category; if they had 10.1 percent to 20 percent poverty in 2000, they might have had 20.1 percent to 30 percent poverty in 2008-12.

There are some outliers. For instance, a tract that includes the intersection of Galley and Chelton roads jumped from under 10 percent poverty to 20.1 percent to 30 percent poverty. Another neighborhood south of Old Colorado City (on the other side of U.S. Highway 24), had a 10.1-percent-to-20-percent poverty rate in 2000, but by 2008-12, its rate was 30.1 to 40 percent.

A New York Times map of 2010 Census data shows the trends in greater detail. Some of the poorest neighborhoods are obvious. Old Colorado City has a 31.5 percent poverty rate. Several tracts in the southern part of the city also top 30 percent, as do areas along Academy Boulevard.

But parts of the Old North End top 20 percent poverty, too, as does Woodland Park. And an area around Southgate and East Cheyenne roads, bordering the Broadmoor neighborhood, tops 30 percent poverty.

Only two tracts have poverty rates over 40 percent. Downtown has a 46.6 percent rate (and was also listed as the sole tract with over 40 percent poverty in 2000). And an area along North Academy Boulevard between Platte Avenue and Airport Road has a 47.3 percent poverty rate. (Check The New York Times interactive map of Census data to see where your neighborhood falls: tiny.cc/5alhkx.)

Working stiffed

So who are all these poor people? Local data and anecdotal evidence appear to have an answer: They're the working poor.

Catholic Charities of Central Colorado spokesperson Rochelle Schlortt says her organization's clients are often families with two minimum-wage incomes, who get into a downward cycle of missing bills after one worker gets hours cut back or loses a job. Other times, a parent may struggle to get any job at all, especially if he has a criminal record. Still other times, a working family living on the edge is thrown into chaos over an unexpected medical bill.

Schlortt says she encounters very few people who don't want to work. "Folks are made for more," she says. "They want to be productive."

Other data suggest she's right. El Paso County had a monthly average of 2,816 welfare cases in 2005 (the earliest year for which data were available), meaning family heads probably didn't have jobs. By 2013, that average had actually dropped, to 2,189 cases. Meanwhile, more and more people are on food assistance, which is often used by working families with low incomes. In 2006, the earliest year available, a monthly average of 33,676 county residents were on food assistance; by 2013, that average had reached 71,192.

Using data from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, Fred Crowley, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs economist and president of Crowley Consulting, sheds more light on the trend. In 2013, he says, the average wage in El Paso County was $44,512. Since 2000, the county has gained 11,921 jobs paying below that average, and lost 6,388 jobs paying above that average.

The lowest-paying sector, accommodations and food services, with an average annual wage of $16,952, has gained 3,634 jobs since 2000. Another large gain came in retail trade, which averages an annual income of $27,508, and gained 1,473 jobs since 2000.

"Pretty much these two categories, which are pretty close to the bottom of the spectrum, explain all the job growth in the community over the last several years," Crowley says.

In 2000, El Paso County was 12.6 percent below the state average for wages. By 2013, it was 14.3 percent below.

Crowley says that the Springs has lost many high-paying tech jobs since 2000, largely because the city never was able to offer the full assembly line for products, and companies relocated to save money on transportation. The county has lost 13,764 manufacturing jobs since 2000, which paid an average of $57,564.

The businesses that have grown in their stead tend to be smaller, which isn't ideal because they don't tend to offer benefits packages that insulate families from economic hits. And the biggest growth sectors — service and retail jobs — also fail to create jobs in the same way manufacturing does. Producing a product requires manufacturing of parts, assembly, and transportation. Cleaning a hotel room, for example, doesn't create more jobs.

Compared to the state, "we are behind in every category you can imagine," Crowley says. "Population is growing faster, but employment is lagging."


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