By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon
The number of children living in highly concentrated areas of poverty in Colorado has more than quadrupled since 2000, according to the 2015 KIDS COUNT report released Monday by the Colorado Children’s Campaign.
Overall, the percentage of kids living in impoverished families in Colorado began to tick down from 18 percent in 2012 to 17 percent in 2013, but that’s still far higher than in 2000 when 10 percent of Colorado children lived in poor families.
And an increasing number of children are living in areas where poverty puts a stranglehold on their community.
Poverty rates are high in cities like Denver and Aurora, and a high number of children, but a surprise in this year’s KIDS COUNT report found that a census tract in Gunnison in rural western Colorado had the highest concentration of kids living poverty in the state — just over 30 percent.
Gunnison County, like much of the Colorado, is home to both rich and poor. The ski resort community of Crested Butte is a magnet for wealthier residents and tourists, while working families in the town of Gunnison 30 miles away struggle to find affordable housing and daycare.
Sarah Hughes, research director for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, said the annual KIDS COUNT report persistently shows that Colorado is a state of haves and have-nots.
“The reason why this comes up year after year is it’s a big part of Colorado’s story. If you look at statewide averages, we look pretty good. But Colorado is a state of extremes. We have many people in resort communities where families have extreme wealth. And we also have some of the poorest areas in the U.S. in the San Luis Valley,” Hughes said.
“Even though people picture poverty as an inner-city problem, it’s something that affects rural counties too,” Hughes said.
In urban areas, high concentrations of poverty can harm children’s health in a variety of ways. High crime rates may make children afraid to play outside. Or it may be tough to access healthy food. (Click here to read School clinic antidote to child poverty, consistently low health grades for kids.)
In Gunnison, poverty creates different challenges.
The city has no pediatrician. Children who need to see one have to travel 60 miles over a mountain pass to Montrose. There also is no pediatric dentist and the two dentists in Gunnison who accept Medicaid patients have long waiting lists. Children who need dental surgery typically have to make two trips to Montrose.
Even within Gunnison, transportation can be a challenge for families without cars. Day care is among the most expensive in the state and housing costs keep rising.
Gunnison is home to a growing community of immigrants from Mexico including many indigenous people from the town of Jesus Maria in the Nayarit area who speak an entirely different language called Cora. Some of the women arrive in one of the coldest regions of Colorado wearing skirts and flip-flops that they’re used to wearing in Mexico. If they want their young children to participate in preschool programs but don’t have cars, they might have to walk a mile-and-a-half each way in temperatures that often plunge below zero.
“It’s really interesting that they come from an area that’s not on the map to another area that’s not on the map,” said Ellen Pedersen, coordinator of multicultural resource services for Gunnison County.
Child poverty – number of children living in counties with pockets of high poverty
Source: 2015 KIDS COUNT from the Colorado Children’s Campaign
“It’s hard. The immigrant families usually have very low-paying jobs and seasonal work. They might clean hotel rooms. Sometimes we have tourists, but they might go to work in the morning and there’s only one room to clean. They might make $3.50 per room,” Pedersen said.
“Day care is so expensive that usually it’s one woman who doesn’t work outside the house. She stays home and watches many kids. I assume there’s a lot of TV being watched and a lot of junk food. It’s hard to go to the park with five or six kids, especially in Gunnison, where it’s really cold.”
Pedersen believes that the corn-growing region of Olathe first attracted the Cora people to western Colorado, then many of them migrated to Gunnison.
Some left when Colorado’s economy tanked in 2009. Some returned to Mexico, but did not feel safe because of the drug trafficking there and returned to Colorado. Other men have sought jobs in the oil fields in Nebraska and South Dakota. But that work doesn’t always pan out and many seem to return to Gunnison, Pedersen said.
There’s a sense of community for the immigrants in Gunnison and the local ranchers love the Cora work ethic, Pedersen said.
“They are really hard workers. One rancher had a worker deported and said he couldn’t live without him. This guy knew how to birth calves. The rancher didn’t need a vet,” she said.
“They’re not going to miss work when the snow’s good.”
But she said it’s sad that the immigrants are so busy working multiple jobs that they rarely get to ski or enjoy the beauty of their region.
“They don’t go visit those beautiful places. They might just go to the basement of a hotel and wash sheets and go back home. That’s not ideal.”
The high cost of housing also forces families to live in extremely crowded conditions It’s common for large groups to share small two-bedroom trailers.
Margaret Wacker, coordinator for the Gunnison Hinsdale Early Childhood Council, said she was surprised to learn that so many people in Gunnison live in poverty.
With the natural beauty and plenty of playgrounds, Gunnison can seem idyllic for children and families.
But affordability is the big challenge.
“Families are having trouble affording child care, especially infant care. That means mothers are having to make this choice between working a job that pays $10 per hour or paying for child care. A lot of women do stay home,” Wacker said.
“It’s the families with younger children that are struggling the most with poverty,” she said.
This is especially concerning to Wacker since the newest research shows that traumatic experiences children have when they are very young can have long-term health effects.
“I do worry,” Wacker said. “We have so much information now about stress in early childhood and the need for high-quality early education. While we’re not as bad as some communities, there aren’t enough high-quality education opportunities here.”
For the first time, this year’s KIDS COUNT report quantified exposure among children to “adverse events.” The data show that one in five Colorado children under 18 has been exposed to at least two adverse childhood experiences. Among low-income children, that percentage rises to one in three. The adverse experiences include divorce of a parent, abuse, neglect, a caretaker’s substance abuse and exposure to domestic violence. Children who experience these types of adversity are at higher risk for physical and mental health problems throughout their lives.
Other key findings in the 2015 KIDS COUNT report include:
- The teen birth rate continued its decline in 2013, reaching 22 births per 1,000 teen girls ages 15-19. The state’s teen birth rate has declined by more than half since 2000.
- The percent of children without health coverage also has declined significantly since 2008 and continued to decline slightly in 2013. More than 70,000 Colorado kids have gained coverage since 2008.
- Maternal and infant health outcomes tended to be worse for children in Colorado’s rural counties. Compared to children in other county types, children in rural counties were less likely to be born to a mother who had early prenatal care and more likely to be born to a mother who smoked during pregnancy. Teen birth rates were also higher in Colorado’s rural communities.
- In 2013, Colorado’s rural counties had the highest uninsured rate for children. Rural children were less likely than children in other county types to be covered by employer-sponsored coverage but more likely to be covered by a public health coverage program such as Medicaid or the Child Health Plan Plus (CHP+).
- Child care continues to be a heavy burden for thousands of Colorado families, both in terms of affordability and availability. Colorado is the second-least affordable state in the country for center-based child care for infants and the sixth-least affordable for center-based care for 4-year-olds.
- Children of color are more likely to be living in poverty, less likely to be enrolled in preschool and less likely to graduate from high school on time than their non-Hispanic white peers.