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Fruits of labor not enough to feed in Pueblo County

Quite a few Pueblo County workers hunger for better-paying jobs while they snap up food assistance at a rate more than three times the state average.

Back in March, the latest statistics available from the Colorado Department of Human Services show 5,670 adults working throughout Pueblo County were receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. At that time, Pueblo had a total active workforce of 71,065. Eight out of every 100 workers in the county receives SNAP benefits, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Employment report. Each state agency respectively reveals that, also in March, 71,617 of 2,858,545 active adult workers statewide were getting SNAP. That’s 2.5 out of every 100 workers.

Kevin Duncan seems unfazed by what may seem shocking and sobering to many county residents. This is because he views these statistics through the lens of an economics professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo’s Hasan School of Business. “These data are not surprising given the differences in average annual earnings (in Pueblo County) versus the rest of the state,” Duncan says.

Nearly 8 out of 100 working adults in Pueblo County were both working and still not making enough to leave the Food Stamp Program.

Wages telling

The professor explains that in 2016 the average annual pay in Pueblo was $40,196 compared with $54,664 statewide, referencing federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The income threshold for a family of four for SNAP qualification in Colorado is $31,590, or about 79 percent of (Pueblo’s) annual pay,” he says. “Since average pay in Pueblo is so close to the SNAP threshold, more workers will qualify.” Duncan further explains Pueblo’s income is low because of a high unemployment rate compared with the rest of the state (4.1 percent compared with 2.4 percent), a low cost of living countywide, and other demographic factors like the county’s lack of workers with the necessary education required for higher paying jobs.

Obviously, the professor suggests an economic strategy that emphasizes developing workers’ skills along with attracting employers who need those skills to stem the tide of Pueblo’s low wages. “This is generally the plan pursued by PEDCO (Pueblo Economic Development Corp.),” Duncan says. “But competition for such employers is tough. Other strategies would involve the creation and development of industry clusters. The local health-care industry is an example where CSU-Pueblo and PCC (Pueblo Community College) supply trained employees for work in the local hospitals that serve the region.”

The professor identifies the area’s abundance of underutilized sun and wind resources as a future “industry cluster” that can be tapped for jobs offering higher pay. “Pueblo has pieces of a broadly defined renewable energy cluster (the Vestas windmill tower manufacturer and local solar farms) that could be developed further,” he says. “Local higher education institutions could play a coordinated role in the further development of this and other clusters.”

PEDCO’s surprise

PEDCO is the organization tasked with bringing jobs to Pueblo. Jeff Shaw, president of PEDCO, chooses to be optimistic when looking at Pueblo’s job situation.

“Too often we as a community focus on the negatives and not the positive aspects of Pueblo,” Shaw says. “Companies we have recruited have found Pueblo to be an incredible place to live and raise a family. Pueblo does have some challenges, however, we are not unique as any city has challenges.
“There are numerous opportunities in Pueblo for those desiring to improve their individual situations,” PEDCO’s president postulates. “(The) majority of these are not low-paying jobs.”
Shaw adds that PEDCO is concentrating on attracting companies to the area that enhance the income level of the community. He also compliments the region’s learning institutions for their workforce training efforts.

“Bringing primary jobs to Pueblo requires locating and expanding great companies but also requires a well-trained workforce,” he says. “There is always room for improvement. Accordingly, PEDCO will become more active in workforce development in the upcoming months. You will hear more in the next couple of months.”

Can figures lie?

The statistics showing Pueblo County has a relatively high number of workers receiving SNAP benefits compared with the rest of the state could be, in a way, misleading, according to Tim Hart, the county’s Social Services director. He relates that a Denver-based group, Hunger Free Colorado, informed him recently that Pueblo County Social Services has the a 94 percent “penetration” or food stamp enrollment rate when it comes to issuing SNAP or food stamp benefits to those in need – the highest among all the counties in the state.

Michelle Ray, Hunger Free Colorado’s communications director, in reference to a report compiled in January by her organization, shares that the food stamp enrollment rate in Colorado counties ranges between 12 and 94 percent, and that Colorado as a whole has only a 59 percent enrollment as compared with the national enrollment rate of 74 percent.

Ray also notes Pueblo County has a lower per capita income than the state average ($23,420 vs. $34,542, according to the 2016 U.S. Census). “We know that per capita income is a predictor of high food-stamp enrollment of the eligible population,” she says.

Not an economist

Hart readily admits he is not an economist when it comes to analyzing why there are so many low-wage earners in the county. Yet he did offer a best-guess explanation. He says that Pueblo has long advertised itself as a community with a manufacturing base and, in general, manufacturing jobs tend to offer lower pay. He adds that Pueblo also seems to have a high number of jobs offering hourly wages like in the retailing, food service, and call center industries. Unlike salaried jobs in which workers are paid by the week, month, or year regardless of how many hours they work, hourly workers can be sent home any day without pay anytime the business has fewer customers. So $12 an hour, let’s say, amounts to a lot less take-home if you’re not working a 40-hour work week.
Hourly jobs, Hart says, are great for people in their twenties, but after age 30, workers need something more stable. That is why Hart touts a plan “to build pathways out of poverty” whereby someone who wants to be a welder, for example, receives necessary training and other assistance needed to accomplish that goal.

Politician’s perspective

State Sen. Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo) puts the blame for Pueblo’s low-wage dilemma squarely on the state. “The state needs to do more so communities outside the Front Range like Pueblo do not continue to fall behind,” he says. “Pueblo has a rich blue-collar history that stretches back decades. Puebloans are hard workers. Unfortunately, as the cost of living has continued to rise, wages have stagnated, and good-paying jobs have become harder to find. From the Great Recession, to companies moving their jobs out of the United States, hard-working families are struggling to get by. That’s why resources that fill in the gaps and help members of the community make sure their children don’t starve are so crucial.”

But the senator does express some hope for the future. “I do see great promise and opportunity for our strong community,” he adds. “Colorado has a very business-friendly climate, and Pueblo is attracting new companies and industries to come set up shop because people recognize our potential. But there is more we can do at the state Legislature. This session, we focused on expanding transportation options to connect Pueblo to the greater Front Range, worked on bills to incentivize businesses to make capital investments in the state, and worked to hold local utility entities accountable so costs are affordable for businesses to open. These efforts, along with others we will continue to work on, will help to increase opportunity for Pueblo families so they can earn a wage that really supports them and their families, and so Pueblo does not continue to fall behind our Front Range neighbors.”

Far and wide

The specter of low-wage jobs spreads beyond the borders of Pueblo County into southeastern and south central Colorado. State Sen. Larry Crowder (R-Alamosa) says, “With a declining population and economic conditions, it would indicate that the demographics of the area are correct in stating, of the 16 counties which I represent, 15 are below the federal poverty level. … What can be done is for people to not become complacent in our situation, but strive to improve our economic situation. To look for opportunities to improve. To educate ourselves on what opportunities exist. To continue to dream about the future. Government can assist, but we are of limited resources. It will take us all to do our part on improving our standard of living and recognizing what southern Colorado has to offer.”

So as statistics seem to confirm Pueblo County’s and southern Colorado’s low-wage plight, there is optimism here that things can get better and are improving. How long before the area rids itself of the dark clouds of poverty and replaces them with the sunshine of prosperity? No one can tell.

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