Colorado Springs Gazette, September 30, 2007: The Working Poor

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Colorado Springs leaders like to say the city is the “Best Place to Live in America,” citing a 2006 Money magazine study.

But for thousands of residents, the Pikes Peak region doesn۪t feel like the country۪s best place to live. They۪re working hard but not getting ahead, struggling to pay for rent, food, child care, medical treatment and other necessities.

These people defy stereotypes of the poor.

The old rejoinder “get a job,” aimed at poor people seeking help, doesn۪t apply to at least 18,629 El Paso County families. At least one member of these families has annual income exceeding the government۪s poverty threshold, but still can۪t make ends meet, according to a study issued this year by the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.

Nor do all working-poor families suffer because their breadwinners lack education.

People with low levels of education are much more likely to struggle financially. But statewide, 21 percent of heads of households with some college education and 10 percent of heads of households with a college degree earn too little money to pay for basics, the institute found.


Including people with incomes lower than the poverty threshold, nearly 28,000 families in El Paso County live hand-to-mouth. The heads of many of these families work and pursue opportunities to get ahead.

Many also are living with the consequences of risky choices such as illegal drug use and early pregnancy.

Their stories do not tie up in neat packages.

The working poor are people such as 52-year-old Maryann Lahr of Colorado Springs, who struggles to help take care of eight grandchildren and bring in a little money with her home-cleaning business.

Lahr said she feels stable for now, but worries that she can۪t afford medical insurance.

“Thank God I۪m in good health, but you just never know,” she said. “Anything can happen.”

The $600 or $700 monthly income Lahr gets from the cleaning business is a long fall from the roughly $1,600 she made monthly as a 25-year employee with Schlage Lock Co. until 2004. The job had benefits, including medical insurance and six weeks of vacation. Lahr said she quit because her children needed help taking care of their kids. Lahr got money from a pension benefit for a while, she said, but now that۪s gone.

Meanwhile, the lot rent for Lahr۪s mobile home is $400 per month, and the mortgage payment is $173. Those expenses take up most of her regular monthly income. To pay for utilities and other bills, Lahr gets creative. She said she holds yard sales and sells her belongings at flea markets. Occasionally, Lahr۪s son gives her a little money, she said.

Lahr regularly volunteers, handing out goods at a local food bank, and can take home supplies for herself. That۪s how she holds her monthly grocery expenses to about $20.

Earlier this year, Lahr found out her 1983 Chevy F10 truck needed more than $1,500 in repairs. She said she made an even trade for a 1994 Ford Tempo to avoid the expense. If the Tempo breaks down, she۪ll take the bus.

Lahr said the financial hardship is worth the benefits of helping care for her grandchildren. She takes some of them to school on weekday mornings, and she helps out with laundry and other household chores.

“I۪m kind of enjoying it in a way,” she said. “I don۪t have the money, but at least I can do what I can.”


At $600 or $700 per month, Lahr۪s top annual income is $8,400. That puts her below the federal government۪s poverty threshold for a one-person household. The official poverty rate for El Paso County in 2006 was an estimated 9 percent of the population, according to the Census Bureau۪s annual American Community Survey. For a single person the threshold is $10,210; for a family of four it۪s $20,650.

Even the government acknowledges the poverty threshold is a poor measurement of a family۪s ability to make ends meet. Still, it determines a family۪s eligibility for many welfare programs. An El Paso County family is not eligible for the child care subsidy program, for example, when its income exceeds 140 percent of the poverty threshold.

Research organizations such as the Urban Institute often posit income of double or triple the poverty threshold as a more realistic mark of financial security.

Advocacy groups in the past few years have pushed for a different measurement, many calling it a “self-sufficiency” standard.

The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute in 2004 issued a report identifying the income required for self-sufficiency in each Colorado county. For a one-person household in El Paso County, the institute said income of $16,475 is required to be self-sufficient. For a household with two adults and two children, self-sufficient income is $42,145, the institute said.

Colorado۪s government has jumped on the bandwagon. State lawmakers this year passed a measure requiring the Department of Local Affairs to post data on its Web site establishing a self-sufficiency standard in all Colorado counties. The new law does not require the government to take action based on the data it collects.

Detailed information about the working poor in El Paso County is hard to come by. Studies of the state and national populations, though, give some glimpses into the population۪s makeup. Here are some Colorado snapshots compiled by the National Center on Children in Poverty:

  • Among children in low-income families, 64 percent have at least one parent who works full-time, year-round.

  • 42 percent of children in low-income families live with a single parent.
  • 64 percent of black children live in low-income families, compared to 60 percent of Hispanic children and 18 percent of white children.
  • 71 percent of children whose parents are immigrants live in low-income families.
  • 43 percent of children in low-income families live in homes their families own.


Several government programs are designed to help low-income families by providing incentives to work rather than rely on welfare. Colorado۪s funding of those so-called “work support” programs is among the lowest in the nation, according to a recent report by the Urban Institute. The result is that fewer people are served, or the benefits are smaller, for programs such as food stamps.

The income cutoff for the food stamps program is 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold. Mary Castaneda, a 28-year-old Colorado Springs resident whose husband works in construction, said her family income is too high to qualify for food stamps. The family۪s financial situation deteriorated after Castaneda۪s husband was laid off from his job hanging drywall.

Castaneda said she gets help from the Salvation Army taking care of her four children and with other needs, but tight finances have resulted in sacrifices. She said she has embraced bargain shopping at Wal-Mart and the Family Dollar store.

“Whenever I can, I go to Wendy۪s and buy those 50-cent burgers,” she said.

The prospects appear even more challenging for some among the working poor. Vanessa Martin, 25, of Colorado Springs, is a single mother with six children. She said she۪s been in and out of jobs at dry cleaners, a thrift store and cleaning rooms at motels but isn۪t working now.

Martin has a criminal record including multiple felonies. But she said she۪s approaching two years of recovery from methamphetamine addiction, and last year she completed a six-month Christian-based program to help recovered drug addicts and reformed criminals get back on their feet. The program involved extensive Bible study, working for a paycheck, classes on money management and job training in areas such as computer skills. But a year after her departure from the program, Martin said she۪s supporting herself and her children on $500 a month. That includes money from the government and child support payments.

“Right now my money is very budgeted,” she said.

Martin said she wants to work again but can۪t find a day-care agency that will take all of her children. In the meantime, she said, there۪s little chance to work on getting a GED, which would be a big step toward job training that could lead to a well-paying job. Many job training programs steer clients toward getting a GED before they offer instruction in a specialized field. Martin said she can۪t find the time to take classes and study for the GED test.

“It۪s hard for me to get even 20 minutes for quiet time,” she said. “My day is pretty long, taking care of six kids.”



Folks from many walks of life are struggling to make ends meet.


Lahr, 52, of Colorado Springs, is divorced with two grown children and eight grandchildren.

HOW SHE GOT HERE: Lahr fell into financial problems when she quit a job at Schlage Lock Co. in 2004 to help take care of her grandchildren. Now she struggles to buy food and pay her mortgage. She has no health insurance. “I was used to bringing in 400-something dollars a week,” she said. “I had six weeks of vacation and 25 years on the job.” Soon after quitting, Lahr started a business cleaning houses for the elderly, making $10 per hour. In a good month, the work yields about $700.

STRETCHING DOLLARS: “I can get a chicken and make three meals out of that,” she said. “I don۪t go out to eat unless the kids take me or it۪s some special occasion.”


Castenada, 28, of Colorado Springs, is married with four children. Her husband works in construction, bringing in about $400 per week.

HOW SHE GOT HERE: Castenada said her husband was laid off from a well-paying construction job when he took time off to be with her during an illness. Castenada suffers from various medical problems such as chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder. Now, she said, his salary isn۪t enough to make ends meet. She gets about $560 per month in supplemental security income, a welfare program for people with disabilities.

STRETCHING DOLLARS: The household income is too high to qualify for food stamps, Castenada said. “I have to pretty much eat the same thing every other day,” she said. “I make a lot of soups.”


Medina, 25, of Colorado Springs, is unmarried and has six children.

HOW SHE GOT HERE: Medina had her first child at age 15. “I was practically pregnant for about eight years,” she said. She has struggled with methamphetamine addiction and getting help from the fathers of her children. She has been in and out of jobs at dry cleaners, a thrift store and in motel housekeeping. She wants to work again, but can۪t afford day care for her children. Many companies won۪t hire her because of a criminal record she accumulated during the addiction to meth. She lives on about $500 per month from various welfare programs.

STRETCHING DOLLARS: “Budget your money,” Medina said. “Make sure you have enough money for your bills. You don۪t need all the extra stuff.”


How much money does it take to make ends meet? That depends on where you live, whether you have children and many other factors.

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy has developed a Web program to help low-income families assess their financial stability. The Colorado Self-Sufficiency Calculator is online at


Monday: They have a home and a car, but sometimes they struggle to buy milk. A look at one family۪s financial troubles, and the decisions that led to them.

Tuesday: Sometimes it۪s all too easy for the working poor to find short-term relief. A look at the loans and credit options that many businesses offer at a price.

Wednesday: Money-management training can be hard to find in the region۪s schools should more be done to help young people avoid financial pitfalls?

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