Complex Poverty in Fort Collins, Larimer County Requires Multiple Solutions for Adults, Children

No single solution will address the complex poverty problem facing Larimer County and Fort Collins largely because of the different issues facing children and adults, according to results of a new study led by Martin Shields, regional economist for northern Colorado.

Shields, an economics professor at Colorado State University, unveiled the study Friday at an event sponsored by the Pathways Past Poverty Initiative at the Foothills Unitarian Church.

The report generally revealed that people are much less likely to face poverty if at least one adult in the household has a full-time job and some level of higher education. By current definition, a family of four is in poverty if their annual income is less than $21,200.

The poverty rate in Fort Collins was 15 percent as of August 2007 – a slight increase since the 2000 Census, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Fort Collins’ average annual poverty rate was 17.5 percent from 2005 to 2007, compared to 14 percent in 1999. Colorado’s poverty rate was 12 percent in 2007.

The report stresses the importance of securing full-time employment as the key to avoiding poverty. In 2006, only 2.4 percent of full time workers in Larimer County lived in poverty.

According to the study, recent and dramatic losses of full-time employment opportunities played an important role in increased poverty. In 1999, 73 percent of all Fort Collins households had at least one full-time worker. This declined to 66 percent in 2006.

The authors point to a strong relationship between education and full-time employment.

"We’ve long known that education is a well-worn pathway out of poverty, and given the current economic downturn, it becomes even more critical," Shields said. "Unfortunately, people without a high school degree are especially vulnerable, as they are among the first to lose their jobs or see reduced hours at work when the economy sours."

Shields and his colleagues built a model to simulate the effects of increased education to help make their point. They estimate that if 300 people that once had less than a high school degree would somehow earn a high school diploma or equivalent, it would reduce the total number of people in poverty in the county by about 570.

The study identifies other important impediments to securing full-time employment, including personal disabilities and language barriers.

David Mushinski, a CSU economist and co-author of the study, identified the rising number of single parent households as another important cause of increased poverty.

"Nearly half of the kids in single parent households in Fort Collins live in poverty," Mushinski said. "And the daunting challenges confronting single parents, such as the expense of day care, certainly work against full-time employment."

Matt Aronson, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at CSU, led a series of focus groups for the study. He draws special attention to the plight of children growing up in "linguistically isolated" households, where no one above the age of 14 speaks English well. The child poverty rate for such households exceeds 40 percent in Fort Collins.

Aronson’s work revealed that parents in these families face unique difficulties in finding full time employment.

"Certainly there are language barriers that must be overcome," Aronson said, "but some of the Spanish speaking people we talked to reported facing discrimination almost daily."  

Sponsors of the report include the Bohemian Foundation, the Community Foundation, the Monfort Family Foundation and Larimer County Human Services. Shields’ regional economist position is co-sponsored by Colorado State University’s Office of Economic Development and the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. NCEDC coordinated the study’s funding because of their interest in workforce and education as it pertains to the region’s economic strength and vitality.

"Creating jobs that offer career ladders for people regardless of education is an essential step forward," said Maury Dobbie, president and CEO of NCEDC. "Reducing poverty is an economic development issue as well as a social issue."

In Larimer County, the significant loss of manufacturing jobs has reduced the number of full-time jobs available to local residents, especially those without a college degree, according to the report.

Ironically, Fort Collins and Larimer County have been growing the number of good, high-paying jobs during the past seven years, but those positions have had little impact on struggling families whose wage earners don’t have college degrees required for those jobs, Shields said.

Major findings of the study:

-The primary age groups witnessing increased poverty between 1999 and 2006 were school-aged children and adults between the ages of 25 and 65.

-In 2006, more than 3-in-4 impoverished children in Fort Collins lived in single-parent households. The child poverty rate in single-parent households is nearly 50 percent.

-Disabled individuals in Fort Collins are much more likely to live in poverty. More than one in four impoverished individuals in Fort Collins has some type of disability.

-Poverty rates are highest for adults 25 years and older with less than a high school degree, but a third of impoverished adults have "some college or an associate’s degree." Unemployment rates are highest for those without a high school degree. Wages increase tremendously with education.

-While adults in Spanish-speaking households are less likely to be in poverty than adults in English-only speaking households, the opposite is true for children aged 5-17. Children living in linguistically isolated households (households where no one older than 14 speaks English well) are significantly more likely to live in poverty.

-Between 1999 and 2006, there was a 42 percent increase in the number of foreign citizens in Fort Collins, and the poverty rate for non-citizens increased by more than 6 percentage points. No determination can be made about what effect, if any, illegal immigration has on regional poverty because data is not available on the legal status of non-citizens.