Lack of living wage hits county

Many residents are forced to make ‘undesirable choices’

Two in five families residing in Montezuma County earn less than a livable wage.

A livable wage addresses the essential needs for basic living, such as the financial costs of shelter, health care, child care and nutrition. In its 2013 report, the Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado estimates that a family of four in Montezuma County needs about $65,000 annually to meet those basic requirements.

“When one earns less than a livable wage, he or she is forced to make undesirable choices such as working two or more jobs, working longer hours, making longer commutes, sharing a residence or giving up basic items such as a telephone or insurance,” the report states.

There are an estimated 7,536 families in Montezuma County. About half of those have income levels below $50,000.

“It is hard to pin down an exact figure, but you could probably ballpark the number of families living below a livable wage at about 40 percent,” said Region 9 spokesperson Donna Graves.

According to the Region 9 report, the cost of living in Cortez for a family of four renting a three-bedroom home spiked 6 percent from 2010 to 2013. During that same time, the cost of living in Dolores ticked up 1 percent, and the cost of living in Mancos rose 3 percent.

To earn a living wage varies. For a single individual in Cortez with a monthly rental payment of $400, a living wage equates to earning $10.66 per hour. Working at minimum wage of $7.78 per hour, a single individual would need nearly 1½ jobs to make ends meet.

For a single individual in Cortez with one child paying $700 a month in rent, the living wage jumps to nearly $23 per hour. If working for minimum wage, the single parent would be required to work a total of three jobs.

Bridge Emergency Shelter board president M.B. McAfee is unaware of any concerted effort in Montezuma County to address living wages, but she believes such an effort is warranted.

“I am quite aware that so many folks are only paid the minimum wage and then expected to be able to find reasonable rentals, stay off welfare rolls and the like,” she said. “It makes no sense to me; no sense at all.”

Two national reports issued last month reveal that U.S. taxpayers pay about $7 billion a year to support Medicaid, food stamps and other public-assistance programs for fast-food workers who earn poverty-level wages. One report revealed that fast-food workers enroll in public safety net programs at more than twice the rate of the overall workforce.

“This is the public cost of low-wage jobs in America,” said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “The cost is public because taxpayers bear it. Yet it remains hidden in national policy debates about poverty, employment and public spending.”

One report, “Fast Food, Poverty Wages,” revealed that about half of the country’s “core” fast-food workers receive some type of public assistance. More than two-third of those workers are the main wage earners in their families, and a fourth are parents raising at least one child, the study showed.

The combined costs of Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the earned income tax credit, food stamps and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program totals some $243 billion annually.

Cortez Area Chamber of Commerce director Dena Guttridge said up to 30 local organizations are dedicated to assisting families in need of affordable housing, but she admitted there are gaps in service.

“These local social service programs don’t give people hand outs, but instead work to give people a literal hand up,” Guttridge said.