The rural versus urban divide has become a common frame through which we examine the issues facing Colorado.
While there’s no question there are important differences between the communities along the Front Range and their counterparts in other areas of the state, there are common forces at work in the lives of every Coloradan.
We recently released our “Guide to Economic Mobility.” It looks beyond the headlines we are used to reading and explores the state of getting ahead and staying ahead in Colorado. To do this, we decided to focus on some of the specific forces and levers of opportunity in our state.
We see four major forces at work in Colorado: demographics, public investment, inequality and technological changes.
Demographics, for instance, loom large for all of us. Statewide, we are getting older and more diverse. This has two major implications: First, we need to make sure we have the financing and infrastructure in place to ensure our aging populations’ needs are covered; second, we need to prioritize efforts to create more educational equity for our Hispanic population, which will make up close to 40 percent of our workforce in 2050.
Another force we must grapple with is economic inequality. Whether you live in Denver or Durango, wage stagnation is affecting your family’s bottom line. Between 2000 and 2016, average weekly wages have only risen $33 when adjusted for inflation, and higher-paying jobs are hard to find. About half of all jobs projected to be created between 2017 and 2026 will be in low-pay industries.
In Southwest Colorado specifically, this unevenness is evident. La Plata and Ouray counties are some of the most prosperous in Colorado, while Montezuma, Dolores and San Juan counties rank as the 42nd, 43rd and 44th most distressed. The poverty rate in each range between 4 to 9 percentage points higher than Colorado’s average of 12.7 percent, while the poverty rates in La Plata and Ouray are about 2 to 5 percentage points below the statewide average.
Changes in technology are something no community can escape. For the past few years, we’ve all read articles about the threat artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and other innovative technologies pose to our economy. In our guide, we find close to 500,000 jobs are at risk because of automation. Many of those jobs are low-wage jobs.
Finally, and perhaps most notably for the state of Colorado, shrinking public investment is a force we must confront. Wherever you go in our state, you hear about the cracks in our public services. School weeks shortened, roads in need of maintenance and missed opportunities for innovation because there just isn’t enough money. Due in many ways to TABOR, Colorado spends just 3.7 percent of our total economy on state services out of its General Fund.
The forces all of us confront are daunting, but our report explores the many levers at our disposal to combat them. Successful use of policy levers in areas like education, health, housing and labor and employment law can make the climb toward economic mobility easier. When communities make smart moves to get ahead of these forces, they do themselves a tremendous service. For instance, when Durango prioritized efforts to improve broadband infrastructure, it gave itself an enormous advantage over other rural peers.
Postsecondary education, a lever we see as tremendously important for economic mobility, also serves as an engine for economic vitality, particularly in our rural communities. When we do a good job of investing in our public colleges and universities, we see the benefits. When we do poorly, many suffer from dramatic increases in student debt, as we have seen in Colorado.
Sure, rural communities and bigger metro areas in Colorado have their differences, but our guide shows these forces affect all of us, albeit to varying degrees. We look at those differences and address which levers are most needed in our state, but the bottom line remains: We could be doing better for everyone, regardless of ZIP code.
Small town or big city, we can’t afford to miss the mark on ensuring economic mobility for every Coloradan. We hope this guide encourages policymakers – whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, rural or urban – to refresh their view of Colorado’s economy and ask whether we truly are doing enough to combat the epic forces at work in all our lives.
Rich Jones is director of Policy and Research for The Bell Policy Center in Denver. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the center’s website at bellpolicy.org.