Childhood poverty: Invest in kids to improve their well-being and grow healthy communities

Monday, April 30, 2018 1:14 PM

The headline read: “Child poverty persists in Southwest Colorado despite low unemployment” (Journal, April 2).

That’s just one nutshell of information from the “2018 Kids Count in Colorado!” an annual publication of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, released in March and in its 25th year, but it’s a telling piece. The headline captures the paradox of the modern economy, which requires a large number of low-wage workers. The cost of living has outpaced the ability of two minimum-wage adults to support a family.

Montezuma and La Plata counties differ in many ways. It’s no surprise that Montezuma County residents are, on average, poorer than their counterparts to the east. In Montezuma County, 56.5 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch; in Durango, the figure is lower but still startling: 34.7 percent. (Statewide, it’s 41.7 percent.)

As of 2016, 24.8 percent of Montezuma County children lived in poverty, according to the official government definition; 11.7 percent of La Plata County children lived in poverty, and statewide, 13 percent. The true numbers may be larger because the same standards are used throughout the continental U.S., but even across Southwest Colorado, the cost of living varies widely from town to town.

Money isn’t the only important part of the equation. For example, the state’s minimum wage is stepping up, but in Cortez, beginning teachers struggle to find affordable housing. Durango jobs may pay better than similar jobs in Cortez, but housing costs are higher, too.

The report, available at, is a gold mine, not only providing and comparing statistical information from 25 years ago to today, but in illustrating how growing up poor affects children and potentially limits their future. Children living in poverty are less likely to have safe housing, adequate food, high-quality child care and access to health care.

Compared with their higher-income peers, only half as many children who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch achieve proficiency in English language arts tests, and in math, that number is closer to one-third. Those are worrisome statistics, with implications not only for the employability of those kids when they are grown but also for a community’s’ workforce with high numbers of kids living in poverty.

Poverty’s social costs extend far beyond those with inadequate income. Having a substantial segment of the population unable to make ends meet affects the whole community.

Colorado has made significant strides in mitigating some of the effects of poverty on children. For example, in tandem with the Affordable Care Act, the state has dramatically reduced the number of uninsured children for whom health care was largely inaccessible. Local communities also have worked hard to provide services to children. But kids still are paying the price for the needed supply of motel housekeepers, big-box store stockers, fast-food workers and manual laborers.

The Kids Count report is well worth reading because it connects so many dots that affect local lives, and it suggests which policy decisions will bear the most fruit. Childhood poverty will not be eliminated in our lifetime, nor will its adverse consequences be alleviated anytime soon, but Colorado is making incremental progress, with positive results not only for families but for communities.

That’s a worthwhile goal, and it makes far more sense than removing the supports that help keep the disadvantages of childhood poverty from becoming lifelong impediments for kids, families and entire states.