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Weedbirds: How Conflicts in Colorado and Federal Marijuana Laws Turn Cannabis Consuming Seniors Into Rule Breakers

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Penelope carefully peers into the glass containers, examining the contents, while her husband, Dale, stands beside her. “This is what I use for the pain in my feet,” she said, as she shows off the sealed green plastic container holding her newly purchased Kandy Kush. “It’s better than the Hydrocodone and Percocet they had me on, which wouldn’t even allow me to play with my grandkids,” says the semi-regular Starbuds dispensary customer. She’s 67-years old.

Marijuna Seniors Mar 161 After the passing of Amendment 64 in 2012, the effect of recreational weed has been focused on youth, yet overlooked is the anxiety of many older Coloradans who still consume marijuana in secret–both for recreational and medical purposes.

According to the latest numbers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of people aged 50 and older reporting marijuana use in the prior year,  went up from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent from 2002 to 2008.

“The rise was most dramatic among 55- to 59-year-olds, whose reported marijuana use more than tripled from 1.6 percent in 2002 to 5.1 percent,” the report said.

As Americans age, use of cannabis has increased among those categorized as baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1964). Today, 10,000 Americans turned 65, and 10,000 will turn 65 tomorrow according to Pew Research–a trend that will happen every day for the next 19 years.

“We are most definitely seeing an increase in older customers,” said Starbuds Pueblo General Manager, Peter Mutty. “Especially with those who have never been in a dispensary before; we usually see them come in with a relative or someone they trust to help guide them.”

“They have lots of questions, and we are here to help,” said Peter’s daughter and Starbuds manager, Sarah Mutty. “We see a lot of seniors with arthritis, sleep issues, menopause concerns, and of course, cancer patients.”

The average age of those who hold a medical marijuana card is gradually going up—from 40-years old in 2009, to 42.5-years old last year, with 37,791 consumers, age 51 and older, flashing a purple card, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Medical Marijuana Registry,
“There are 43 million senior citizens in this country–there will be 80 million by 2040,” said Marcie Cooper, American Cannabis Nurses Association director.

The topic of senior citizen cannabis use has become so prevalent that earlier this year scientists, academics, journalists and consumers took part in a daylong seminar entitled Seniors and Cannabis, held in Denver.

“Nursing facilities will increase from 15 to 20 million by 2050.”  According to Cooper, the average 65-69-year old is on 14 legal FDA-approved prescriptions. The average 80-84-year old takes 18 prescriptions–most commonly opiates, and those which treat depression, with side effects that include constipation, confusion, insomnia, anxiety . . . and depression. “We owe it to our elders to give them another option to improve their quality of life.”

Marijuna Seniors Mar 162Audrey, a vivacious 68-year old with a megawatt smile, is one of those seniors in a marijuana limbo who feels it improves the quality of life but is scared of the consequences of using it.

“I’ve always had a relationship with pot,” says Audrey. “I have a lot of struggles with chemical issues in my body.  Low serotonin. It (marijuana) helps me manage my serotonin levels  and helps me relax.  I don’t want to get a medical card because the whole marijuana issue hasn’t been figured out yet with the feds. Our country is in such unrest right now, with so many political challenges, I didn’t want my name in a system.”

Her husband Max, 67, agrees.

“Legalization in Colorado has allowed older consumers to come back to it, so that’s good, but it’s cheap enough on the recreational side, so that’s how we buy it.”

Max, Audrey and others spark a new debate for Pueblo–just how many seniors in the county consume and how that impacts Pueblo, which is generally considered an older, retirement home community.

Pueblo consistently ranks in the top 10 of affordable places to retire. In 2013, AARP called Pueblo “A Desert Gem,” and touted its sloppers, Thunderwolves, and low housing prices, while CNN Money hyped Pueblo with “its rich history and plenty of cultural offerings, as well as a dry climate that rarely falls below 30 degrees Fahrenheit or goes higher than 80 F.”

How many move to Pueblo for cannabis is unclear.

The Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce doesn’t keep numbers on how many seniors are relocating and retiring to the area because of cannabis.

“We don’t break down those demographics,” said Tourism Director, Donielle Gonzales. “We don’t supply seniors, or anyone else, with specific information about marijuana in Pueblo, and we don’t provide them a blueprint on where to visit about that.”

Roger, a 56-year old California transplant came to Pueblo well-before Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. For him, and many other others, marijuana at a golden age reflects a golden sensibility.

“I enjoy consuming marijuana,” he said, as he showed off his pencil thin vaporizer. “It’s a way to unwind, like anything else.  When you are a teenager it’s like ‘Oh wow I’m gonna get stoned,’ but now that I’m older, I take a hit and change the cat’s water bowl.”

This enjoyment felt by other seniors is posing unforeseen conflicts in this new frontier of weed–consuming cannabis can be at odds with receiving elder-care services such as retirement home living, Medicare and other senior services.

While Pueblo encourages visitors and newcomers, looking for a new zip code, with an almost  “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality on why they come, the city, along with federal laws, makes it nearly impossible for retirees who partake to spend their remaining years in Pueblo.

“Pueblo is my home; I want to die here,” said 77-year old Clark, brushing his thick salt and pepper hair away from his eyes. “But I worry that the older I get, I won’t be able to take my medicine if I need to go into a home,” he said as he pointed to his red and black glass pipe containing his favorite strain, Grape Ape.

Clark isn’t alone with his concerns. As more and more Pueblo cannabis consumers age, the services needed to care for them are still non-existent.  “I don’t want to be forced to go back to the pills I was taking, just because the government still thinks my weed is bad for me,” he said.

Marijuna Seniors Mar 163Pueblo elders often find themselves seeking assistance from the Joseph Edwards Senior Center, a city-owned facility managed and operated by Senior Resource Development Agency of Pueblo. But while you will find information on Meals on Wheels, nutrition services, and foster grandparents, the center has no intention of adding cannabis-related programs or services to the roster.

Evie Densford, the controller at SRDA, shows how senior services and marijuana don’t quite mix. The SRDA currently has a zero-tolerance policy inside its two housing units, Union Plaza and Richmond Senior Housing.

“We have people who come in and need their electricity turned on, or need help with dental work,” said Controller Evie Densford. “All of our programs are federally funded, so we won’t be including that [cannabis-related programs and services] with what we do.”

Those Pueblo seniors, who can afford private assistance in their later years, often find themselves in one of the nearly one dozen assisted living and nursing home facilities in town. However, the door remains shut to any resident who partakes.  Primrose, Brookside El Camino, Villa Pueblo, North Point, Chateau at Sharmar, Heatherwood, and Oakshire retirement homes all have a zero tolerance policy where they would dismiss a resident from their facilities if one is caught with marijuana.

Bonaventure representatives, who did not want to be identified, admit that while their facility is a cannabis-free environment, they have tabled any revision of that policy until there is a need to do so.

In this new West, seniors are facing unforeseen restrictions due to conflicts between federal law and funding and Colorado legalization. For many seniors, who want to consume marijuana, the law and elder-care services leave them in a state of rulebreakers, but hasn’t stopped them.

“I sneak cannabis oil capsules and salves in to my father,” said 64-year old, Cheryl, whose 87-year old father is housed in a one of the zero tolerance Pueblo retirement homes.  “I’ve seen how marijuana has helped him,” and I’m not going to take that away from him.”

Not all senior living facilities have a strict zero-tolerance policy, or these facilities are willing to bend rules for seniors who want to partake.

Representatives at Pueblo Regent were reluctant to openly publicize their cannabis policy, but admitted, “What residents do in their own private apartments is their own thing. They are allowed to smoke in general, in the privacy of their apartment; what they smoke is their own business.”

Those Pueblo seniors who need to look beyond assisted living, with end of life care, are also denied use of legal substances, beyond FDA-approved drugs, for a palliative transition.

“It’s not legal, federally, and since we get paid by Medicare . . . ” said Aluren Smith, medical director at the Sangre De Cristo Hospice and Joni Fair Hospice House. “We can’t recommend it, but we never make recommendations for treatment.”

Smith admits that while there are no clinical guidelines supporting the use of marijuana for seniors, she countered that patients are free to use whatever they need to—as long as it doesn’t interfere with a doctor’s recommended care.

As John leaves Maggie’s Farm in Pueblo West, he laughs in his enjoyment of lasting past his doctor’s “sell-by” date.

“Guess my age,” the lanky, animated customer teases.  “I’m in my 70s, but the doctor said I wouldn’t live last past 68.” John, who admitted to being a cancer patient, credits his longevity to  “A good diet, exercise, and a daily bowl.”

Editor’s Note: The names of the customers and patients in this article have been changed, at their request.

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1 Comment
  • MikeParent

    Let’s hear what the government experts, the DEA said; In 1988, DEA Administrative Judge Francis Young wrote in his ruling;
    “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.”
    Judge Francis Young rules marijuana is safe, 1988, DEA, USA
    http://www.ccguide.org › young88

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Patriot Waiting Games

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Pueblo Marine Corps veteran David Jiron had a stroke this past April. Once out of the hospital he went through the Veterans Administration to seek follow-up treatment at one of its facilities. The VA scheduled the treatment for this coming October.

Rather than wait about half a year to see a medical provider about the aftereffects of the stroke, Jiron used his costly private health insurance to get treatment within the local Parkview health-care system.

The Veterans’ Choice Program is supposed to cut down on VA wait times by allowing veterans to receive treatment at community medical facilities, which in turn would be compensated for their services by the VA. In theory, a veteran making a trip to the family doctor would be no different than being treated by a primary care doctor at a VA facility.

Jiron praises the Choice program for how quickly the VA got him an eye exam (within a week) at a non-VA facility. Yet the VA would not allow him to use the program for his stroke follow-up at Parkview. Jiron also was frustrated that the program won’t pay the tab for the teeth cleaning he needs, and getting it done through a VA facility is difficult because he was told the VA was “short-staffed” when it came to routine dental work. As for wait times at VA facilities, he is still waiting to see a neurologist at an out-of-town VA facility related to his April stroke.

Veterans’ Choice

Jiron is Southern Colorado service officer for Disabled American Veterans. The national nonprofit organization supports the Veterans’ Choice Program, which was established the Veterans’ Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014. Signed into law by President Barack Obama and then extended by Congress and President Donald Trump this past April, the Veterans’ Choice Act came about after it was widely reported in 2014 that about 35 veterans died while waiting for appointments at VA facilities in Phoenix. Although the Choice Program was extended this year it is still considered a temporary benefit. The extension Trump signed in April and which took effect on Aug. 7 was for $2.1 billion to pay for Choice services nationwide, and when that money runs out, the Choice Program will need another extension from Congress to keep operating.

Andrew Grieb at the Colorado DAV’s Denver headquarters says his organization backs the Veterans’ Choice Program and sees it as playing a role in what the DAV hopes would become an “integrated VA health system.”

Jiron says the VA needs to “turn around” adding that current VA Secretary David Shulkin seems to be the person to do just that. But Jiron is not the only one with issues regarding Veterans’ Choice.

Small-town, big concerns

The town of Springfield in extreme southeastern Colorado has no VA facility making it a prime location for the Choice Program. The Southeast Colorado Hospital District serves Springfield and the towns of Pritchett, Vilas and Campo. David Engel is the CEO of the hospital district, which entices veterans on its Facebook page to take part in the Choice Program at its facilities. Yet despite the promotion Engel says the number of veterans taking part in program is “sparse” for two reasons. The first is that, he says, the VA rejects veterans for the Choice Program if they carry other pricey insurance like a private plan, a plan through work or Medicare. The other is that, once a veteran jumps through the VA hoops and uses Choice to see a primary care provider within the hospital district, that vet again has to clear VA hurdles to see a specialist that the primary care provider recommends. Engel, who’s relatively new to his position at the district, adds that staff members have told him of significant delays in getting reimbursed from the VA through Choice for the hospital district’s services.

Engel says as an alternative to VA Choice Program many veterans living in the communities served by his hospital district drive as far as Amarillo, Texas, to get treatment at VA facilities there.

Telling stats

VA wait times in southeastern Colorado are daunting. Brandy Morrison, congressional liaison and acting public affairs officer for the VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System reveals some eye-popping statistics, which were last updated on July 31. The AVERAGE wait time for a new patient to receive care at the VA’s PFC James Dunn Clinic in Pueblo is 69 days; at the VA clinic in La Junta, 54 days; at the VA’s PFC Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs, 52 days; at the VA facility in Lamar, 36 days; at the VA clinic in Alamosa, 29 days. The new-patient wait times at the VA facility in Salida is relatively outstanding at a mere six days. The picture for average primary care wait times for patients already established in the VA system is much, much brighter:  13 days for Alamosa; 11 days for Lindstrom in the Springs; seven days each for Lamar and James Dunn in Pueblo; four days for La Junta; and for Salida, one day.

Morrison adds that a national VA statistics website uses an average of new patient and existing patient wait times for primary care and at least one other factor to come up with its numbers. Using those statistics, the national average VA primary care wait time is 4.9 days compared with 26.68 for La Junta, 22.38 days for Alamosa, 18.35 days for Lamar, 13.99 days for Pueblo’s Dunn Clinic, 12.95 the Springs’ Lindstrom Clinic and 2.88 days for Salida.

Choice restrictions

Morrison says regarding the Veterans’ Choice Program designed to cut down on VA wait times, veterans are eligible to use the program through three avenues. The first is that if wait times for the services they require are greater than 30 days. The second is if veterans needing care live 40 miles or greater from the nearest VA facility. The third is what Morison calls a “geo-burden” which means if a veteran is separated from a VA facility by such obstacles as mountains or bodies of water. Note that a veteran having other forms of insurance is not on Morrison’s list for a veteran being turned down for the Choice Program.

Yet Morrison says relatively few veterans in the Eastern Colorado region choose to take advantage of the Choice Program. In fact, she says, during the third quarter of federal fiscal year 2017 (which runs from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30) 71 percent of the veterans served by the VA’s Eastern Colorado Health Care System chose to stay with the VA for their primary care needs rather than go through the Choice Program.

Yet for a veteran opting to go into the community to use the Choice Program, Morrison says a VA employee will place them into the program and forward all pertinent medical information to the VA “third-party administrator” or TPA (which is a company called Health Net Federal Services) for appropriate scheduling.

“Once Health Net receives and accepts the referral,” Morrison says, “they begin their scheduling attempts to get the veteran scheduled as timely as possible with the provider of their choice. Since May of 2017, the VA is the primary insurance for all services received through the Veterans Choice Program.”

Regarding payment to Veterans Choice Program providers,

Getting paid

Morrison says she cannot speak to that because Health Net handles all payments to the providers as part of its contract with the VA.

And, as Southeast Colorado Hospital District CEO Engel previously indicated, reimbursements from the Choice Program are hard to come by. And, by way of example, Pulp has learned of one story about an eye care clinic in the Pueblo area having its reimbursement check sent to an eye clinic in Alaska.

Health Net Federal Services communications director, Molly Tuttle, gives a generic response to Pulp’s concerns about delayed Choice Program reimbursements.

“It is our honor and responsibility to serve the veteran community,” Tuttle, who is based in northern California, says. “We strive to provide excellent service to every veteran, every time. Health Net Federal Services has no higher priority than the fulfillment of our Veterans Choice Program obligations in support of our continuing and long-term commitment to the veteran community.

“We strive to address issues as they arise and continue to work with our over 14,000 community providers to service the state’s more than 80,000 Choice eligible veterans in Colorado,” she adds. “Developing a complex and consistent new program like Veterans’ Choice is a team effort, and HNFS is working closely with Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Colorado VA Medical Clinics, and local health care providers to ensure veterans have the appropriate, coordinated and convenient care they have earned for their service to our nation.”

Congressmen respond

The office of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Cortez) representing Colorado’s 3rd District says VA wait times and the Veterans’ Choice Program do have issues. “As the Veterans’ Choice Program has been administered, it has become clear there are problems that need to be addressed, including administrative burdens and red tape in the referral process, as well as issues with payments for Choice providers,” says Liz Payne, the congressman’s communications director, in an email.

“Despite the identified problems, there are countless examples where we have seen the Choice Program work for veterans who had no access to care prior to the program’s implementation, and Congress and the VA continue to work to ensure the programs is as efficient and as streamlined as possible. Congressman Tipton and his staff also continue to work with veterans across (his district) to help them navigate the Choice Program process. We are currently serving over 1,000 veterans on Choice Program-specific casework.”

Colorado 4th District U.S. Rep. Ken Buck (R-Greeley) has this to say in an email about the Veteran’s Choice Program: “I support giving veterans more health care options through the Veterans’ Choice Act, but I recognize the challenges faced by the act over the past few years. Congress needs to continue working to improve this act so that veterans receive the care they need, when they need it.”

Kyle Huwa, Buck’s communications director, says in an email the congressman’s staff is looking into concerns Pulp has raised about long wait times at VA facilities in southeastern Colorado and the effectiveness of the Veterans Choice Act.

“Once he has more information on the specifics of the issue,” Huwa says, “he can address that question.”

Although southeastern Colorado has obvious problems with VA wait times and the Veterans’ Choice Program, there is reason to be upbeat. Air Force Veteran Phil Andreski is pleased with the VA service he receives. “No complaints from me,” he says in an email. “Don’t use VA other than getting hearing aids, and I’m satisfied.”

Andreski is the southeastern Colorado representative for the United Veterans Committee of Colorado, a Denver-based veterans’ advocacy group. He adds that he has not received any complaints from the veterans he knows about long VA wait times or the Veterans’ Choice Program.

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Me Too, when even an acting Colorado State Legislator is sexually harassed

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It took Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, three drafts before finally publishing a post to Facebook acknowledging that she, too, was a victim of sexual assault and harassment. The most recent incident was just a week earlier, she wrote.

State Representative Daneya Esgar made public on Facebook that she too was sexually harassed and assaulted by a “colleague” and was expected to stay quiet.

The posts tagged or titled “Me Too” started as a rallying cry after an exposé in the New York Times cataloged the sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Social media posts on Twitter and Facebook came from women of all walks of life, all skin colors, all sexual orientations — a message that it wasn’t one type of woman that fell victim to sexual violence. The message was one that quickly reinforced that the problem is widespread and doesn’t discriminate.

“Like the (Facebook) post said, the first time I was sexually harassed I wasn’t even old enough to go to school,” Esgar said.

The latest was just a week before a wildfire of “Me Too” posts hit the internet.

“I was at an event with a number of different professionals and colleagues from the general assembly were there. I had to leave for another event, so I went to another table to thank the woman who planned the event,” Esgar recalled.

As she was standing, waiting to say goodbye and slip off to the next gathering, Esgar said she felt a hand wrap around her thigh “and start moving upward.”

“There was a table of people around that didn’t realize what had just happened,” said Esgar, who exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!” as she quickly realized she was groped by a man she only described as somebody she regularly works with sitting at the table.

The response from the man was, “Now, darling. You don’t need to make a scene,” according to Esgar.

“It doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but it’s completely inappropriate and for him to tell me not to make a big deal about something,” she said.

Perhaps that’s also part of the problem, Esgar said: That women often feel like they’re the ones who are overreacting.

“We are (as women) absolutely conditioned to feel guilty,” she said. “We need to start calling out sexual assault and sexual harassment for what it is. We should put it out there and what was interesting about the ‘Me Too’ campaign was to see the number of men surprised by the number of women admitting they had been apart of an incident.”

House Speaker Crisanta Duran said the social media campaign has brought a sense of prevalence to the issue, but it’s one that isn’t new.

“In my opening day speech I spoke to the importance of inclusiveness, and of condemning that which is inexcusable,” she said in a statement. “Everyone should have the right to feel safe and respected in their workplace and in their day to day life.”

Duran, who would be in charge of investigating any kind of reported sexual harassment that took place in the legislature, added that “it’s clear that this is an issue that impacts us all, and we should all strive to create a more inclusive, safe, and respectful environment, in the legislature and more broadly.”

Esgar said she’s grateful that in her past she was able to have access to therapy after incidents of sexual assault, and that she feels comfortable admitting it happened to her. But that doesn’t mean every woman who has encountered that type of abuse should feel that they have to speak out like she has.

That was the flipside conversation to the campaign: that it would be a trigger for many women. Esgar said no woman should feel shamed into talking about their incident or not talking about it, healing is individual.

Nationally, one in five women will experience rape, according to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. In Colorado, the prevalence of sexual assault against women is 23.8 percent, higher than the national average of 18.3 percent.

If it seems like sexual assault and harassment have landed a permanent place in the news cycle, it’s probably because it has. Esgar points to the current president, who was elected even after an old tape surfaced in which Trump boasts his own fame, saying he can do anything to women, even “grab them by the p*ssy,” as the tipping point.

The Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault spokeswoman, Neta Meltzer, said on one hand, the different recent news events — the Trump tape, Taylor Swift winning a symbolic dollar against her assaulter, and Weinstein’s several accusers — have shined a light on the previously taboo subject. On the other, she said many women fear they will be met with blame or disbelief if they speak up.

“Our goal is to make sure that individuals feel safe to come forward – to make sure they know that they will be believed and that they are never to blame for what happened to them,” Meltzer said. “So many survivors have been met with skepticism and victim-blaming responses, so it is easy to understand why reporting or disclosing one’s experience is not always a safe or realistic option. The important thing is that survivors get the help and resources they need, and that they know they are not alone.”

Esgar said she has been in two abusive relationships in the past, but is fortunate to have had access to counseling and now has a supportive wife and title that allows her to talk about the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

“Nothing has changed with this position. But it does give me a platform to call things out a little bit louder,” Esgar said of her job as a state lawmaker.

She recalls one particular moment during the 2017 legislative session when debate on an immigration-related bill amendment caught a comment about a rape, which Esgar said had become routine throughout the session.

Rep. Dave Williams, a Republican from Colorado Springs, referenced a case in Maryland where an 18-year-old student raped a 14-year-old girl in a school bathroom stall. It was later discovered the offender was from Guatemala, illegally living in the U.S.

On that day in mid-April Esgar left the floor and found Rep. Faith Winter, also a survivor of sexual assault, sitting and waiting out the speech outside of the chamber as well.

“I went to her and said we’ll go (and speak) together and we waited our turn to speak and we went down and basically said we didn’t want another survivor’s story to further his political agenda anymore,” Esgar said.

At the well of the House, standing side-by-side, the two were obviously upset. Winter said the story of a sexual assault victim was being used to “target hate” and “incite fear against an incredibly important population.”

Esgar told the chamber that using one woman’s traumatic experience over and over again had to end.

“We put up with it all session,” the lawmaker, on the verge of tears, said. “And we can’t take it anymore.”

The two promptly left the well and after more discussion the amendment failed.

After Esgar published her “Me Too” Facebook post she said she didn’t think it was such a big deal, even as she saw the speech from Williams as distasteful and insensitive. Esgar said she knows so many women who have encountered similar incidents as she has. But she also hopes maybe her story, like millions of others posted to social media, will shift the conversation and convince men to listen and women to stop shaming each other.

“The therapy went through helped me because of what happened. Every single day I’m working to stand up for people at the Capitol,” Esgar said. “I try to hold myself in that strength and to move me forward and be strong not just for myself but for the people I make decisions for everyday.”

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Fruits of labor not enough to feed in Pueblo County

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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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