Poverty is proving to be a persistent problem for families and children across the region, even though unemployment is low.
Recently released Colorado Kids Count data show that 11.7 percent of children in La Plata County were living in poverty in 2016, which was almost unchanged from the year before. In Montezuma County, the poverty rate among children was about 25 percent, down from about 29 percent in 2015.
Those who grow up in poverty can face lifelong consequences, said Lauren Savage, a spokeswoman with San Juan Basin Public Health.
“Poverty is a toxic stress that affects language, psychosocial and brain development, and is linked to chronic illnesses,” Savage said.
The long-term trend for poverty in La Plata County is positive. While it rose with the recession, it has declined 4 percent compared with 1993, said Sarah Wilhelm, a local economist. However, in the past several decades, wages have stagnated, she said.
“Even though people are working, they are still not making ends meet. They are still not getting out of poverty,” she said.
In 2016, La Plata County’s unemployment rate was about 3 percent, and in Montezuma County, it was 5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Colorado has seen trends similar to those in Southwest Colorado. While the state has had one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, the statewide poverty rate was 13.4 percent in 2016.
A phased increase to the minimum wage that Colorado voters approved in 2016 will help families in poverty, said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
“I think it is making a real difference,” she said.
The first wage increase took effect in 2017, and by 2020, the minimum wage will be $12 an hour.
An increase in minimum wages can lift individual and family wages above the poverty guidelines, which can help stabilize families and allow them to spend more time with their children, said Darren White, director of La Plata County Thrive! Living Wage Coalition.
While La Plata County poverty rates are lower than the state average, Montezuma County has struggled with higher rates and associated problems for a long time. But there’s a new effort underway to work on the county’s complex social issues.
Montezuma County nonprofits, school districts, business groups, churches and health care providers are working on a new collaborative effort to help youth succeed from “cradle to career.”
The group Team UP Southwest Colorado is aiming to make sure every child enters school ready to learn, every child is in a safe and supportive environment and families can access health care.
The collaborative model they are using, called collective impact, has shown success in Salt Lake City and other Colorado towns, said Lynn Urban, president and CEO of United Way of Southwest Colorado, which is helping to manage the effort.
Team UP’s short-term goals include raising awareness about the importance of early childhood education in the community and distributing food to families in need.
“If kids don’t eat, they can’t study, they can’t show up,” said Chuck McAfee, who organized the group.
He said he hopes Team UP efforts will be reflected by better academic achievement in elementary schools and higher graduation rates.
Improving early education is an investment that can improve a child’s long-term health, education and employment opportunities, Wilhelm said.
“It’s a long game you’re playing because it’s educating kids who are now 2, 3, 4, 5 years old,” she said.
One participant, Montelores Early Childhood Council, is working on separate efforts to prepare preschoolers for kindergarten so teachers can spend more time teaching and less time helping students adjust to class, council coordinator Vangi McCoy said.
For example, the council plans to host a week of morning activities this summer for children who didn’t attend preschool.
MECC is also working to make sure preschool and kindergarten teachers use the same curriculum so kids have more consistency.
When children have their needs met early, they have a better chance at breaking out of generational poverty, Urban said. “It’s not something that’s solved this year or next or in five years,” she said.
“But thankfully, a lot of the funders are starting to recognize that, and they are doing some long-term investments.”