Imbalance persists in county economy

There\'s a rise of children living in poverty.
Courtesy of Morgan McMillan

Income, achievement gaps remain as Latino population increases, report shows

Boulder County residents haven’t had to worry much about the health of the county’s economy in the last few years. Compared to national and international economies, at least, Boulder has done well through the recession.

And while the county is still a “community of wealth,” in the words of Morgan McMillan, some statistical trends indicate that could gradually change. McMillan is the civic forum director for The Community Foundation, a Boulder-based non-profit dedicated to preparing the county for its future and encouraging charitable giving.

When The Community Foundation published its biennial Boulder County Trends Report near the end of 2013, McMillan saw many of the same trends that she’s grown used to but that often surprise even longtime residents, she says. Chief among those surprises is the racial and ethnic diversity of a county so often stereotyped as lily-white.

“Folks are surprised by our changing demographics,” she says. “We are much more diverse than what most social circles reveal.”

The county’s non-white population remains lower than the national average, but the population identifying as people of color has now hit 20 percent. The City of Boulder’s Latino population sits at 9 percent, up slightly from 8.2 percent in 2000. Longmont, meanwhile, is 25 percent Latino.

The growing diversity of the county is important both in its own right and because it could play a large part in the future of the economy, the Trends report indicates. Boulder County’s Anglo-American population has long maintained a higher-thanaverage income. The county faces a persistent income gap between Anglos and Latinos, as the average Latino family earns only half what an Anglo family earns.

According the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the average Anglo household in Boulder County brings in $70,085; the average Latino family income is $35,599, a statistic that appears in the Trends report.

“It’s still surprising for people to see the difference in median income,” she says.

Latino children are five times more likely than Anglo children to live in poverty in Boulder County, 35 percent versus 7 percent. There have been huge increases in kids living in poverty, McMillan adds.

Boulder County’s incomes are high overall, but the county hasn’t had success incorporating that rising minority population into its wealth, she says.

As the population continues to incorporate more minorities, the county’s economic health could hinge on improving the income gap.

For the 2013 Trends issue, The Community Foundation enlisted the help of the Latino Task Force of Boulder County, a non-profit that serves the Latino community and has performed studies in the past to evaluate its strengths and challenges. The chair of its board, Nick Robles, says the Latino community is a “very important economic piece” in the county.

And the Latino population is rising faster than the non-Latino population in the county. That means, McMillan says, the income gap needs to be addressed for its own sake and for the health of the county’s economy.

“We need to do a better job of educating our low-income kids,” she says. “We need to be more effective in educating low-income kids.”

That burden should not fall entirely to schools, she says, because poverty can cause much more complex problems. But school districts should continue to focus on minority achievement to allow for greater incomes for Boulder County’s Latino population. Robles also says closing the achievement gap in school is pivotal.

But the Trends publication suggests that it might not be that easy.

After all, Latinos in Boulder County are better-educated than the national average — 24 percent have bachelor’s degrees, while nationally the number is 13 percent — yet they earn less than the national average.

Both McMillan and Robles say Boulderites don’t see their communities as very open or inclusive, pointing to a three-year study conducted by Gallup and The Knight Foundation of the factors that build strong communities. The study included Boulder and found that Boulderites ranked the city’s social offerings and aesthetics well but gave a lower score for openness. “They just wanted to focus it on the Latino community,” Robles says of Trends. “I think part of that was spurred by the Gallup poll that showed that the general Boulder County community was not inclusive of other cultures.”

Robles argues that the Latino community’s contributions economically are sometimes overlooked.

“There are a lot of Latino businesses, and we saw an increase in the amount of Latino businesses [since 2001],” he says. “That, of course, also means more jobs that have been provided. We also see a majority of Latinos purchasing goods locally. … Even though, at the same time, a lot of survey respondents said they were unsatisfied with some aspect of their employment.”

But what captured Robles’ attention wasn’t a statistic of any kind.

“For me personally, I was really surprised with all the accounts of discrimination that the focus group participants were able to share,” he says. Trends mentions stories of Latinos in Boulder County being shadowed while shopping, stopped repeatedly by law enforcement, ignored altogether and mocked for not being able to speak English. A survey of Latino residents indicates more than one-fifth consider discrimination a problem in Boulder County. Robles points to some of the facts — like how Boulder County Latinos are more likely to be Coloradans by birth than Boulder County Anglos are, or that the average Latino family speaks English at home — as signs that “national media myths” are inaccurate.

Moving toward closing the income gap, Robles says, could take a variety of forms. He calls for more opportunities for Latinos to be in leadership positions and for improved education for Latino students.

“Some of the stories from the focus group participants were, as Latino students they felt they weren’t encouraged to pursue higher education or go directly to a four-year university. They were pushed to a vocational track or community colleges,” he says.

Both he and McMillan — and members of the Trends focus groups — also call for greater openness in our daily lives.

“I can own my personal everyday interactions with people in my community,” McMillan says. “Think about my workplace, my civic interactions, families at my kids’ school — how open am I and how much am I stretching myself to connect with others I don’t typically connect with? That, to me, is a positive opportunity.”