It costs a lot of money not to have any.
The American idiom that people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps is a lot harder today than it was in the early 20th century. Durango residents April Fry and Peg Powell work hard, but with rampant income stagnation and inequality, hard work alone just isn’t enough to lift someone out of poverty.
In 2011, 42 percent of La Plata County residents earned between $15,000 and $44,000 a year, Now slightly more than 50 percent are stuck in that wage range, according to statistics from Habitat for Humanity of La Plata County.
The cost of housing, transportation and child care in Durango adds up, and with what little is left, it’s hard to get ahead. And society imposes additional penalties and fees for not having enough money, keeping people trapped in never-ending cycles of poverty and debt.
“There’s been a lot of money spent on teaching people how to manage their money,” said Rachel Taylor-Saghie, executive director of the county’s Habitat operation. “(But) most of our homeowners when they come in, prior to being in a house, there’s no money to manage, there’s no discretionary income.”
Extra fees charged to the poor can include bank overdraft fees, credit card fees, higher car insurance premiums, court fines and higher food prices. A lost job, a sick day from work or unexpected car repairs can transform someone who is making it to someone who is slipping father and farther behind.
Take parking tickets in Durango as another example. If some vehicle owners have to wait over a week to get a paycheck, so they can pay the $12 fine, they’ll have to pay double, $24. If it’s not paid in the 21 days after that, it doubles again to $48. The city is changing its policy so if the ticket goes unpaid after a month, the car is booted and a $50 boot fee is added. The new policy is expected to take effect in August. The current policy is a boot after three unpaid tickets.
Because Durango’s economy is mostly service and tourism, there are a lot more low-wage, low-skill jobs, forcing some residents to work two or three jobs to pay the bills.
“It seems like in Durango the biggest thing is the job market,” said Sarah Smith, executive director of the Durango Food Bank. “On minimum wage, they can’t make ends meet. Even if it’s an adult household with no children ... trying to cover those basic needs, it’s a challenge for them.”
April Fry is finally getting a handle on her life after years of being homeless and working low-wage jobs. The 27-year-old dropped out of high school when she got pregnant at 16 and later earned her GED certificate. As a single mother in Durango, she said she couldn’t get a job that covered all her bills. She worked at fast food restaurants and motels at minimum wage.
“I pawned a lot of my stuff, my accounts were overdrawn,” Fry said. “I wrote hot checks, whatever I could do to survive.”
She moved to Grand Junction for four years in 2005 after months of living in motel rooms or with friends.
A living wage
A La Plata County resident would have to make $26 an hour, or more than $4,000 a month, to have a living wage to support a family of four with just the basics, Smith said, referring to a food bank study in 2009. That doesn’t cover savings, eating out or vacations.
“Even if you threw those things in, who’s making $26 an hour anyway?” Smith asked. “Then they have to pay for day care out of that. Day care is so expensive in this county.”
Durango resident Peg Powell, 39, is living in subsidized housing off Florida Road with her son and daughter, 17-year-old Kai and 12-year-old Kealey, in a two-bedroom apartment. She and Kealey share a room. Powell makes $15 hour and pays about 38.5 percent of her income in rent. Recently divorced, she counts every penny, but she’s unable to save money and lives paycheck to paycheck.
“I just put $300 in savings and I had to have all four rotors replaced on my car, so there went that money,” Powell said. “Just when I get something saved, something comes up.”
Transportation becomes a bigger cost for residents who work in Durango and live outside of it because of the lack of affordable housing, said Sarada Leavenworth, director of Volunteers of America in Southwest Colorado.
“Housing in Durango proper is so costly that even folks making a fairly reasonable wage are still often having to look at housing way outside of town,” she said. “So the cost of getting to and from work is much higher than if they were living right downtown.”
Caught in the system
Court costs also punish the poor. A survey by National Public Radio in May shows Colorado charges defendants and offenders for electronic monitoring devices, using a public defender, other legal costs, probation and supervision, and room and board while incarcerated. The state has also increased civil and criminal fees since 2010.
Fry got into trouble in Grand Junction, going to jail and ending up homeless again. She couldn’t pay the court fines she racked up.
“I got like three traffic tickets within a few months and I couldn’t pay them off,” Fry said. “I’d gone to jail so many times on those little petty fines that I’d gotten myself into this big huge mess and I was getting arrested at least twice a month for getting behind on my fines.”
She moved back to Durango in 2009. She tried go to community college but kept missing class because her children would get sick and she had trouble finding day care. She had another child in 2010, but was having trouble finding housing.
Both women are fighting to get ahead, with some positive results. Fry paid off her fines. She’s going to school online, living in low-cost housing and getting temporary federal financial assistance. She is also job hunting.
Powell also receives some government assistance, but she’s in a much better financial situation than Fry. Powell graduated from high school and has some college. She was approved earlier this year for a Habitat house that is expected to be built next year. Powell expects to get a raise at her job in July, but that could threaten her current housing situation. Without the break she gets on rent, her apartment would cost $1,044 a month.
“If I didn’t qualify to live here, I’m not sure what I would do, honestly,” she said.
She also has no money to help her son go to college if he wants to when he graduates high school next year. Kai may have to take on student loan debt, which could hang like a millstone around his neck for decades.
“We’ve been talking about that a lot lately, and I’m like, ‘I can barely make it myself, I don’t know how I’d put kids through college,’” she said. “He’s weighing all of his options.”