Colorado’s child poverty rate was improving pre-pandemic, but that trend is likely to change

Before the pandemic, 11% of children in Colorado were living in poverty. A new report indicates that number is expected to grow.

By: - August 26, 2021 5:00 am

Bags of food to be distributed on June 30, 2021, during a food pantry distribution at the Village Exchange Center in Aurora (Rachel Woolf for Colorado Newsline)

Colorado’s child poverty and unemployment rates had been steadily falling prior to the pandemic, and median family income was on the rise. 

But all of that progress came to a halt in March 2020 after the spread of COVID-19 triggered stay-at-home orders and mass layoffs, which propelled the percentage of U.S. children with an unemployed parent to a 50-year high, according to a new report released by the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a nonprofit policy and research organization. 

“Even before the pandemic struck, too many kids and families in Colorado were facing challenges such as poverty, mental health struggles, or difficulty finding high-quality child care,” Kelly Causey, president and CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said in a written statement. “The pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the flaws in our economic and social systems that have long kept many Colorado kids and families from living healthy, happy lives.” 

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The annual report, titled, “At a Tipping Point: Building Stronger Systems for Colorado Kids in the Aftermath of COVID-19,” touches on a wide array of topics, including the pandemic’s impact on child well-being, family economic security, food insecurity and access to health and child care.

The report, which was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Anschutz Foundation, El Pomar Foundation and Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Colorado, highlights how the impact of the pandemic on families has been far from uniform and that long-standing inequities based on race, ethnicity and gender have left women of color to bear the brunt of the pandemic’s economic impacts. 

Due to long standing policies and practices that have advantaged White people at the expense of people of color, troubling racial and ethnic disparities in child poverty rates were persistent in Colorado before the COVID-19 pandemic.”

– From the new Colorado Children's Campaign report

Though the exact number won’t be published until late 2021, estimates for how much the child poverty rate has risen in response to the pandemic don’t look good, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign report.

According to an analysis published in December 2020 by researchers at Zhejiang University, University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame, an estimated 2 million children in the U.S. fell into poverty between June and December 2020.

Prior to the start of the pandemic, Colorado’s child poverty rate had reached its lowest level since 2000 at 11% compared to the national rate of 17%. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $25,750 annual income.

“Due to long standing policies and practices that have advantaged White people at the expense of people of color, troubling racial and ethnic disparities in child poverty rates were persistent in Colorado before the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors wrote in the report. 

Housing instability among households with children

In Colorado, the rate of children with at least one unemployed parent rose to 13% between April and August 2020, a rate twice as high as what was observed in the first three months of 2020, according to the report. 

If able to work remotely, parents were thrust into remote schooling for their children while trying to balance their home and work responsibilities — an unsustainable situation that caused many parents, especially women of color, to leave the workforce altogether. The drop in women’s participation in the labor force since February 2020 reached levels not seen since 1988, according to an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center.

An analysis from the Congressional Budget Office estimates that approximately 1 million U.S. mothers with children under 18 left the labor force between late 2019 and late 2020, twice the rate fathers did during the same timeframe, according to the report. 

Across the state, the largest rates of unemployment were seen in areas that rely heavily on the tourism and hospitality industries, including Gilpin, San Miguel, Summit, Clear Creek and Pitkin counties. Some communities saw unemployment rates reach as high as 25% early on in the pandemic. As of July, Colorado’s statewide unemployment rate is 6.1%.

The number of households experiencing housing instability during the pandemic fluctuated widely throughout 2020 in response to a patchwork of federal and state protections that provided expanded unemployment benefits, temporary eviction restrictions and emergency rental assistance. 

Between 30% and 43% of Colorado households with kids reported experiencing difficulty paying for usual household expenses in the previous week throughout 2020, including food, rent or mortgage, car payments and medical expenses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Nationally, renters with children have consistently been more than twice as likely as families who own their housing to report being behind on their payments.

“Safe and stable housing is always vital to a child’s well-being, but even more so when schools and child care settings are closed and home serves as the setting for learning and nearly all other activities,” the authors wrote.

Rise in student homelessness

Since August 2020, between 24% and 42% of Colorado households with children have reported they were not caught up on their rent or mortgage payments and were very or extremely likely to have to leave their home due to eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to the report, which relied on data from the Census Bureau. 

The substantial rise in housing costs in Colorado coupled with the state’s ballooning population over the last decade meant many families were already struggling to access affordable housing prior to the onset of the pandemic.

In 2019, 30% of Colorado children lived in households that were housing cost burdened, meaning more than a third of the household’s income went toward mortgage, rent and related housing costs, according to the report. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, Colorado school districts identified 21,420 students who were considered homeless, meaning they lacked “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, according to data collected through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Program. 

This year’s numbers are expected to be updated after the official student count in October, but the true number of homeless students will likely be obscured by low enrollment rates in response to the pandemic.

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a former Colorado Newsline reporter that covered criminal justice, housing and homelessness, and other social issues.

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