This post was written by Joseph Hawkins, a former member of our team.
Nine months ago, I graduated college, and a week later I packed my bags and moved cross country to Denver. Here, I started my year as an Americorps VISTA, which involved committing to a year of living on poverty wages while serving the community. Ocean views turned into mountain scenes, gas money turned into bus fare, and instability, well, turned into more instability. Professionally, the VISTA program has taught me a great deal. Personally, it has shown me that living in poverty is like putting together a piece of furniture without the instructions and missing a few key pieces. There have been many moments where I’ve been frustrated or discouraged, but the VISTA experience, along with years of living in different communities and income levels, has put things into an even greater perspective for me.
Colorado is a big state with vastly different regions—from the Western Slope to the Front Range to the Eastern Plains. But rural, urban, or suburban, our state has its fair share of poverty. For 12 percent of Coloradans, financial stability seems out of reach (and despite African Americans only accounting for four percent of the population, 23 percent live in poverty). Poverty-level income rarely leaves room for things outside of the most basic necessities, and sometimes not even enough for that. And the rising cost of living in Colorado does not help. When so much—if not all—of your income is dedicated to monthly expenses, a visit to the doctor’s office might be out of the question.
In 2017, the federal poverty level (FPL) for an individual was set at $16,040 and $32,718 for a family of four. However, in Colorado, the income needed to meet basic needs exceeds the federal poverty level in every county—so a lot of people are doing without necessities. The FPL determines your eligibility for certain programs and benefits, which provide access to food, health care, housing, and other basic needs, all of which have a significant impact on health outcomes. Recently, we’ve seen these essential programs threatened. President Trump’s budget proposal asks Congress to roll back the Medicaid expansion, set work requirements for programs that offer federal assistance, limit food options for those receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps), and cut funding to social services. People living in poverty are already making sacrifices to make ends meet, and these changes would make it even more challenging to get and stay healthy.
At Center for Health Progress, we believe your access to care and opportunity to live a healthy life should not depend on your income, but right now it does. Almost a quarter of Coloradans living in poverty report being in fair or poor health, compared to 9.6 percent of those living at 201-300 percent FPL. Also in Colorado, men and women earning the most income will live six to ten years longer. Children living in poverty at a very young age have a higher possibility of being depressed within their first 10 years of life. And people earning less than $15,000 have higher obesity rates.
My experience as a VISTA, plus my several years of personal hardships, have reinforced for me how difficult it is to live in poverty. I’m proud to serve my country and work on important issues for Coloradans, but I’m also ready to make a living wage. I hope we can work together to reduce poverty across our state so all our neighbors can reach their full potential. Because when they do, our communities prosper, and Colorado is stronger.