Apr 27, 2022 - Business

Decline in Colorado's poverty rate could be misleading, experts say

Share of people with income below poverty level, by county
Data: American Community Survey; Map: Jared Whalen/Axios

Fewer Coloradans are living in poverty than a decade ago — but experts caution that the numbers don't reflect the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Driving the news: The latest five-year figures from the 2016-2020 American Community Survey reveal 9.8% of Coloradans earned incomes below the federal poverty line ($12,760 for a single person in 2020).

  • That's down from 12.7% reported in the previous five-year estimate between 2011 and 2015.

Reality check: The figures only reflect a small part of the pandemic's impact on residents' lives, Colorado state demographer Elizabeth Garner tells Axios Denver.

  • Although the most recent estimates factor in data from COVID's economic shock, they also contain data collected in the final years of the longest expansion in the history of U.S. business cycles, she notes.

What they're saying: A sharp spike in the need for food assistance throughout the pandemic is a key indicator the survey numbers don't paint a complete picture, local service providers tell Axios Denver.

  • The Food Bank of the Rockies is experiencing a 34% spike in demand compared to pre-pandemic levels and amid inflation, which is forcing triple the monthly spend on food, spokesperson Aditi Desai says.
  • Just four months into the year, Denver Rescue Mission has already served about half the meals it did in all of 2021, when it dished out over 750,000 plates, food services director Kevin Baker notes.
  • Meanwhile, first-time homelessness in metro Denver doubled between 2020 and 2021, according to the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative.

By the numbers: In the metro area, Denver and Boulder counties accounted for Colorado's highest poverty rates at 11.9% and 11.2%, respectively.

  • Rural counties in southern Colorado showed the highest poverty rates statewide, with Crowley County leading at 26.8%.
  • Douglas County, just south of Denver, had the lowest poverty rate in the state at 3.2%.

The big picture: Colorado's poverty levels remain lower than the national average of 12.8%, which declined from 15.5% between 2011 and 2015.


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