Table of Contents

One goal of U.S. foreign policy is to advance Americans’ economic well-being. While high growth rates and low unemployment rates are important indicators, those interviewed made clear that these statistics are insufficient to gauge how the middle class is faring. Even in a comparatively healthy economy like Colorado, the middle class faces pressing economic challenges. The data collected reveal the need for foreign policy professionals and their domestic counterparts to reexamine the analytical framework they use to define and advance national economic interests. This reexamination should consider the extent to which economic growth is inclusive and whether earnings are keeping pace with household costs.

Colorado’s economy has been growing and diversifying for the last century and has taken quantum leaps forward since the 1970s. Today, the state’s economy is thriving. Jobs exist everywhere. But not everyone is benefiting equally. Disparities across educational, geographic, ethnic, and generational lines persist. And even as jobs become available, a middle-class lifestyle remains difficult to obtain or sustain because incomes are not growing as fast as the costs of healthcare, housing, childcare, education, and other monthly expenditures. As a result, anxiety persists about the future of the middle class—not only in struggling rural counties in the Eastern Plains and the Western Slope but also among the highly educated populations in the urban areas of the Front Range.  

Colorado’s Economy Is Thriving, but Not Everyone Is Benefiting

In the late 1800s, risk-takers and adventurers flocked to Colorado in search of gold. Farming and ranching, coal mining, and rail lines quickly sprung up to support them.1 The state still bears the imprint of these early industries, even as the past century has been marked by diversification and reinvention. Indeed, beef and other meat products are still among Colorado’s top goods exports, and coal powers more than half of the state’s electricity.2

In the last few decades, Colorado’s workforce has evolved considerably, contributing to the diversification of the economy. Colorado’s population has more than doubled since 1970 and has become increasingly educated. In 1970, less than 15 percent of Coloradans possessed a college degree; today, over 40 percent do.3 Colorado’s colleges and universities have been steadily turning out more graduates, while the state concurrently attracts a massive inflow of educated talent from across the nation and globe.4 The state’s diversified economy, physical beauty, abundant outdoor recreation, and innovation culture have primed it for growth.

Leveraging a highly educated workforce and extensive research and development (R&D) through its network of universities and federal laboratories, Colorado now boasts several thriving industry clusters. These include aerospace, aviation, beverage production, bioscience, broadcasting and telecommunications, energy, financial services, food and agriculture, healthcare and wellness, information technology software, outdoor recreation, and tourism. Average wages in these industry clusters in the metro Denver area range from $60,000 to over $170,000 per year.5 Postrecession, Colorado ranks among the top ten states in employment, population, and income growth.6 The growth has created a tight labor market in the last few years, and employers are alarmed about the increasing difficulty of finding workers to fill vacancies.7

Colorado’s economy is clearly doing well, but the middle-class experience within it varies considerably depending on levels of education and skill, geographic location, race, and ethnicity.

A Different Economic Reality for Low-Skilled, Low-Paid Employees

Even with one of the nation’s most highly educated workforces, approximately 60 percent of working-age Coloradans do not possess a college degree.8 For these workers, many of the top occupations available to them involve low-skilled, low-paying service sector jobs that do not put them in Colorado’s middle income range ($46,551–$139,653 for a three-person household in 2016) (see Table 2).

Table 2: Most of Colorado’s Top Occupations Pay Below Middle-Income Wages
Top Ten Occupations Employment Median Annual Wage
Retail Salespersons 86,610 $25,120
Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, Including Fast Food 65,670 $23,220
Cashiers 56,710 $23,840
Registered Nurses 51,760 $72,870
Waiters and Waitresses 50,390 $21,230
Customer Service Representatives 48,120 $34,260
Business Operations Specialists, All Other 43,800 $74,910
Office Clerks, General 41,290 $38,310
General and Operations Managers 39,200 $107,140
Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Except Legal, Medical, and Executive 38,610 $37,360
Total 522,160  
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Employment Statistics: May 2018 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates: Colorado,” https://www.bls.gov/oes/2018/may/oes_co.htm.

The occupations that pay more than $70,000 per year—a figure often cited in interviews as the minimum required to sustain a modest middle-class lifestyle—generally require higher levels of education, whereas those available for those without a college degree fall below the threshold for a middle income. Thus, to achieve a middle-income status through low-paying service sector jobs, households usually require two incomes. Both parents now work full time in 81 percent of Colorado’s middle-class families.9

A Concentration of Well-Paying Jobs

Well-paying jobs for those with a college or advanced degree do not exist everywhere across the state. They tend to be concentrated in Colorado’s Front Range, which includes the Denver metropolis, the defense hub of Colorado Springs, and other major cities such as Fort Collins and Pueblo. Sixteen counties in the Front Range (of the sixty-four total counties in Colorado) account for over 80 percent of the state’s population and economic activity.10 Figure 2 illustrates the particularly stark disparity in household income between the Front Range and the Eastern Plains.

Economic Disparities Along Ethnic and Racial Lines

Similar to national trends, Hispanic, Native American, and African American households in Colorado generally experience lower incomes, higher poverty rates, higher unemployment rates, lower homeownership rates, and lower educational attainment levels than most of the non-Hispanic, white population. In 2016, the median household income in Colorado for white households was $71,406 compared to $49,201 for Hispanic or Latino households.11 And while unemployment rates for Hispanics or Latinos in Colorado are lower than in most of the rest of the country (at 3.4 percent in 2018), they are still trailing the white population within their own state.12 Note, however, that Colorado’s ethnic and racial minorities are by no means monolithic communities. Real differences exist within them, depending on geography and education. There are differences, for example, between newly arrived Hispanic families and those who settled in places like Pueblo a few generations ago.13

Rising Household Costs

Notwithstanding Coloradans’ different economic experiences, focus group participants across the state made clear that whatever their household incomes, they were not going up fast or high enough to keep pace with the rising costs of healthcare, childcare, education, and housing, among other monthly expenses (see Figure 3). The inability to cope with increasing costs was repeatedly pointed out as the main threat to attaining a middle-class lifestyle.

Healthcare

Focus group participants in conservative, liberal, urban, and rural areas all repeatedly pointed to the rising costs of healthcare as their chief concern. That is not surprising, given the approximately 70 percent increase in healthcare costs for middle-class households from 2000 to 2016.14 The Consumer Price Index shows that medical care prices increased 21 percent in Colorado over the past five years compared to 14 percent nationally.15

These rising costs are especially troubling for an aging population entering the later stages of life and for whom healthcare comprises a substantially larger proportion of their household budget.16 The economic struggles of the elderly can also affect their children. One focus group participant in Grand Junction summed up the sentiment: “I think all of us are worried about losing our home by having some medical event. If you have family members like older parents that you’re caring for, you’re seeing your inheritance disappear because of their costs. There are just so many things related to healthcare that are costing us more than they did twenty years ago.”17

Childcare

The rising costs of childcare have become an increasing preoccupation for Coloradans. In 2017, it cost $12,095 per year, on average, to place one four-year-old in a childcare center for the workday (the costs were far higher for toddlers, infants, or multiple children in childcare). Coloradans pay more for childcare than the national average by upwards of $3,000 annually.18

At the same time, childcare workers are paid less than middle-income wages in Colorado. The average annual income of childcare workers in Colorado in 2018 was $28,770. It is higher than the national average by approximately $4,000, but they face higher costs of living on average.19 Thus, their salary generally is not enough to attain a middle-class lifestyle, especially if they have kids of their own and lack a second income.

This situation presents a twofold problem. Middle-class families are struggling with the rising costs of childcare, and childcare workers are struggling even more to break into the middle class. The same dynamic applies for middle-class families dealing with the rising costs of elderly care and for elderly care providers dealing with low wages.

Education

Focus group participants frequently cited education as another key concern for the middle class, especially in how it relates to economic potential and childcare. School funding shortfalls are forcing many school districts, particularly in rural areas, to drop to a four-day school week, which many fear will reduce the quality of education and put added childcare burdens on families.20 In 2017–2018, Colorado ranked thirty-third in public school expenditures per student, and it currently leads the nation in the number of school districts with four-day weeks: 111 out of 178 districts, most of which are rural.21 Focus group participants across the state were aware that Colorado is falling behind the rest of the country. For example, a participant from a local business in Grand Junction remarked, “If you start in this district in kindergarten and graduate from high school, your butt would have been in a high school an entire year less than your counterparts around the country.” 22

The shortfalls in resources are also affecting school teachers, who are already struggling with low pay. A 2017 report found that over 95 percent of teachers in rural school districts in Colorado were paid salaries below the cost of living.23

Naturally, state and local officials would love to be able to address all the education needs, but they face significant resource constraints. Unlike the federal government, states cannot deficit spend. In Colorado’s case, the situation is even more challenging. Those fearful of an expanding state government pushed through legislation in the 1980s (the Gallagher Amendment) and early 1990s (the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, known as TABOR) that had the net effect of making it harder to raise local taxes to address shortfalls in school financing.

Focus group participants also expressed concerns about postsecondary education. While a bachelor’s or advanced degree has been seen as an important pathway to the middle class, questions are being raised about whether the mounting costs of college and student debt are worth it. In Durango, a local ice cream store owner believed that “a college degree gets far less in today’s economy. I have two employees and they can’t get jobs in the field they studied and make more than they make at the ice cream shop—they make pretty good tips. A college degree alone doesn’t mean much, plus you have all that debt—it is no longer the ticket to economic stability. It’s the minimum bar to entry, but it is not a guarantee.”24

Largely in response to college debt, in almost every focus group, participants urged consideration of a societal shift back to vocational schools, two-year degrees, apprenticeships, and trades. They saw these as potentially more cost-effective routes to the middle class. In Greeley, a local resident stressed that “they’ve been told in order to be successful, in order to achieve middle class, you’ve got to go get a four-year degree, spend $100,000, and go into debt. We’ve got to get back to basics in saying it’s okay to be a plumber, it’s okay to be a carpenter, it’s okay to be a mason. I have a cousin in Chicago who is a skilled electrician and makes $80 an hour. He has two houses and a motorcycle.”25

Housing

Whereas healthcare costs and college debt are universal concerns across the country, the costs of housing are especially acute in Colorado, which has become a victim of its own success. The sheer pace of in-migration has increased the pressure on limited housing stock, driving up prices. An increasing share of Coloradans’ income is going to housing, especially in Boulder and Denver (see Figure 4).26 Colorado ranks seventh in the nation in terms of the ratio of median home value to median income value.27

In the northern Front Range, it seems that although well-paying jobs exist and incomes are going up, housing prices are going up even faster. An executive at Colorado’s Department of Labor pointed out how a middle-class household in Denver might now consist of three to four young professionals carrying heavy student debt and sharing a home to save on escalating rent in the booming metropolis.28 Similarly, in Boulder, a longtime resident and head of the local realtor’s association indicated that, in 1990, he and his wife purchased a modest, typical single-family “middle-class home” for $200,000. That same house would now sell for around $1.2 million, which “no middle-class family can afford.”29 Retirees are not selling, because they do not want to leave Boulder and could no longer afford to buy there. Rising housing costs have put more pressure on the budgets of all generations. Meanwhile, new housing development is restricted in Boulder, which purchased much of the land in decades past to create a greenbelt to prevent urban sprawl. That has forced an increasing number of working families in Boulder to seek accommodations in towns farther out, such as Longmont, where housing is more affordable, at least for now.

Some interviewed in the metro Denver area considered the more rural county of Greeley, approximately 65 miles northwest of Boulder, to be a potential, cheaper option. Focus group participants in Greeley would urge them to think again, however. One conjectured that the average house price in Greeley was as low was $130,000 in 2008–2009 and has risen to $340,000 in 2019.30

Rising housing costs are not merely a Front Range concern. On the Western Slope, for example, one hears similar complaints from those in the fast-growing tourist town of Durango and even the regional transportation hub of Grand Junction. Those fortunate to have bought homes a decade or two ago in these areas have seen their wealth appreciate. Yet they likewise cite increasing home prices as an obstacle to attracting more middle-class families to growing communities.

Other Concerns

Healthcare, childcare, education, and housing are direct, large, and growing parts of a middle-income budget. But participants also mentioned other significant domestic concerns that restrict families’ ability to attain a middle-class lifestyle:

  • Transportation: The ability of workers to be able to commute from more affordable areas depends heavily on investments in highways and public transport.
  • Broadband: An increasing number of towns are also looking to attract telecommuters but struggle with limited and costly broadband service. For example, in Grand Junction, one focus group participant complained that the absence of competition among internet service providers meant they could charge businesses exorbitant rates for service. The previous and current governors have taken steps to expand broadband access across the state, but many in rural areas suffered from no connectivity at all and pushed for greater priority attention on “the last mile.”31
  • Water: Building affordable housing in new communities or attracting new industries often comes down to the availability and cost of water. Because eastern Colorado is situated in the High Plains, water issues feature in many public policy debates in the state.

This is just a partial list of the broad range of issues that cause anxiety for the middle class in Colorado, and this is a state that is doing better economically than most other states.

Concluding Thoughts: Why These Domestic Policy Concerns Matter for Foreign Policy Professionals

Foreign policy professionals, members of Carnegie’s task force included, often gloss over the aforementioned issues because they see them as being the responsibility of their domestic policy counterparts. That needs to change. 

By not paying close enough attention to these domestic concerns, foreign policy professionals risk becoming out of touch with the economic realities that America’s middle class face. They might not fully understand why the defense of certain foreign policies simply on the grounds that they are “good for growth” can ring hollow for many middle-class households. They can underappreciate the extent to which even those in thriving, affluent areas, such as in the metropolitan Denver area, question the viability of the middle-class dream, just as those struggling in Ohio’s smaller manufacturing towns do.

Ultimately, when defining the national economic interests intended to be advanced through the U.S. role abroad, foreign policy professionals need to take these economic realities into account. They need to work more closely with domestic counterparts to discern where certain problems predominantly require domestic policy solutions, whereas others may also be affected by foreign policy. And they need to be familiar with the domestic investments required to address these challenges, so they can properly assess the potential trade-offs and opportunity costs associated with increasing expenditures abroad.

Notes

1 Wilson D. Kendall, “A Brief Economic History of Colorado,” Center for Business and Economic Forecasting, September 15, 2002, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=2ahUKEwig8MiLg-7fAhUxq1kKHXpgCFAQFjAAegQICxAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fhermes.cde.state.co.us%2Fdrupal%2Fislandora%2Fobject%2Fco%253A3222%2Fdatastream%2FOBJ%2Fdownload%2FA_brief_economic_history_of_Colorado.pdf&usg=AOvVaw3WE0eJcDs29el9OjZ-bmp2.

2 Business Research Division, Leeds School of Business, Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2019 (Boulder: University of Colorado Boulder, 2018), 111–114, https://www.colorado.edu/business/business-research-division/colorado-business-economic-outlook; U.S. Census Bureau, USA Trade Online, “State Exports by NAICS Commodities,” 2018, data extracted June 18, 2019, https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/state/index.html; and Brian Eason and Eric Lubbers, “Climate Change Is a Priority at the Capitol. These Charts Show How Far Colorado Needs to Go,” Colorado Sun, April 3, 2019, https://coloradosun.com/2019/04/03/colorado-climate-change-charts/?utm_source=The+Sunriser&utm_campaign=da2d8c2877-SUNRISER-20190107_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_24f7d21cdb-da2d8c2877-57936001&mc_cid=da2d8c2877&mc_eid=eb3a361a34.

3 Business Research Division, Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2019, 4; U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment: 2017 American Community Survey 1–Year Estimates,” https://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_17_1YR_S1501&prodType=table.

4 Business Research Division, Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2019, 73–74.

5 Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, “Metro Denver and Northern Colorado Key Industry Clusters,” January 26, 2017, 6; http://www.metrodenver.org/media/230157/2017-industry-cluster-study-full-report-.pdf.

6 Business Research Division, Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2019, 8–9; U.S. Census, “Nevada and Idaho Are the Nation’s Fastest-Growing States,” December 19, 2018, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/estimates-national-state.html.

7 Business Research Division, Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2019.

8 U.S. Census Bureau, “Educational Attainment: 2017 American Community Survey 1–Year Estimates.”

9 Eduardo Porter, “Where the Good Jobs Are,” New York Times, May 2, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/02/business/economy/good-jobs-no-college-degrees.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share; Todd Ely and Geoffrey Propheter, Colorado’s Middle Class Families: Characteristics and Cost Pressures (Denver: Bell Policy Center, 2018), 13–14, http://www.bellpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Colorados-Middle-Class-Families.pdf.

10 Aldo Svaldi, “What Colorado Regions Will Grow Fastest Through 2050? The Answer Is Not Metro Denver,” Denver Post, November 7, 2017, https://www.denverpost.com/2017/11/07/colorado-population-growth-fastest-regions/; and Aldo Svaldi, “Front Range Towers Over Colorado Economy, New Country GDP Numbers Show,” Denver Post, December 20, 2018, https://www.denverpost.com/2018/12/20/front-range-gdp-colorado-economy/.

11 Bell Policy Center, “Demographics: A Changing Colorado,” 2018, https://www.bellpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Demographics-Guide-to-Economic-Mobility.pdf.

12 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Preliminary 2018 Data on Employment Status by State and Demographic Group,” January 25, 2019, https://www.bls.gov/lau/ptable14full2018.pdf.

13 Salman Ahmed and Brian Lewandowski, interview with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Denver, April 5, 2019.

14 Ely and Propheter, Colorado’s Middle Class Families, 27.

15 Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Consumer Price Index, All Urban Consumers,” updated May 2019, data extracted June 26, 2019, https://data.bls.gov/PDQWeb/cu.

16 Ely and Propheter, Colorado’s Middle Class Families, 36, 39–40.

17 Focus group conducted by Salman Ahmed, Allison Gelman, and Richard Wobbekind, Grand Junction, March 4, 2019.

18 Child Care Aware of America, “2018 State Child Care Facts in the State of: Colorado,” 2018; and Child Care Aware of America, The US and the High Cost of Child Care (Arlington, VA: Child Care Aware of America, 2018), 26, https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/3957809/COCreport2018_1.pdf?__hstc=122076244.3dc8d8ff7c7014f81493b21b15f48de6.1554299623091.1554299623091.1554299623091.1&__hssc=122076244.1.1554299623092&__hsfp=3998393707&hsCtaTracking=b4367fa6-f3b9-4e6c-acf4-b5d01d0dc570%7C94d3f065-e4fc-4250-a163-bafc3defaf20.

19 Child Care Aware of America, “2019 State Child Care Facts in the State of: Colorado,” 2019, https://info.childcareaware.org/2019-state-fact-sheets-download?submissionGuid=85d5b7e5-1b96-4107-aa70-6a2991c67547.

20 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, and R. Wobbekind, Grand Junction, March 4, 2019; and Kelly Regan, “Sacrificing Our Schools: More Than Half of Colorado School Districts Adopt 4-Day Weeks to Cut Costs,” Coloradoan, September 13, 2018, https://www.coloradoan.com/story/news/2018/09/13/colorado-school-districts-4-day-weeks-cut-public-education-costs/1205620002/.

21 National Education Association, Rankings of the States 2018 and Estimates of School Statistics 2019 (Washington, DC: NEA, 2019), http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/2019%20Rankings%20and%20Estimates%20Report.pdf; and Jennifer Brown, “Colorado Now Has More School Districts on Four-Day Weeks Than Any Place in the Nation—With Little Research on the Benefits,” Colorado Sun, August 27, 2019, https://coloradosun.com/2019/08/27/four-day-school-weeks-in-colorado/.

22 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, and R. Wobbekind, Grand Junction, March 4, 2019.

23 Colorado Department of Higher Education, Teacher Shortages Across the Nation and Colorado (Denver: Colorado Department of Higher Education, 2017), https://highered.colorado.gov/Publications/Reports/teachereducation/2017/TeacherShortages_Nation_Colorado_Dec2017.pdf.

24 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, B. Lewandowski, and R. Wobbekind, Durango, February 25, 2019.

25 Focus group conducted by S. Ahmed, B. Lewandowski, and R. Wobbekind, Greeley, April 1, 2019.

26 Ely and Propheter, Colorado’s Middle Class Families, 36; Business Research Division, Colorado Business Economic Outlook 2019, 72.

27 Alexander Hermann, “Price-to-Income Ratios Are Nearing Historic Highs,” Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, September 13, 2018, https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/blog/price-to-income-ratios-are-nearing-historic-highs/.

28 S. Ahmed, B. Lewandowski, and R. Wobbekind, interview with representative of the Colorado Department of Labor, Denver, March 18, 2019.

29 S. Ahmed and B. Lewandowski, interview with representative of the local realtors’ association, Boulder, April 4, 2019.

30 S. Ahmed and B. Lewandowski, focus group, Greeley, April 1, 2019.

31 S. Ahmed, A. Gelman, and R. Wobbekind, focus group, Grand Junction, March 4, 2019; ; Colorado General Assembly, “SB18-002: Financing Rural Broadband Deployment,” 2018, https://leg.colorado.gov/bills/sb18-002; Colorado General Assembly, “SB19-107: Broadband Infrastructure Installation,” 2019, https://leg.colorado.gov/bills/sb18-002.