Colorado's child poverty rates drop, but rural areas still struggle

March 24, 2015 Updated: March 24, 2015 at 11:58 am
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photo - Photo via Kids Count
Photo via Kids Count 

Child poverty rates in El Paso and Teller counties dropped in 2013, and Colorado as a whole recorded its first decrease in five years, according to a report released Monday.

Seventeen percent of children in Colorado lived in poverty in 2013, down 1 percentage point from the previous year, according to the KIDS COUNT in Colorado! report by the Colorado Children's Coalition.

El Paso County's rate dropped 4 percentage points to 14 percent, while Teller County saw a 1 percentage point drop to 15 percent.

"It's something we can be hopeful about and optimistic about," said Chris Watney, the nonprofit's chief executive.

However, vast disparities remain between urban and more rural areas of the state, where 23 percent of children live in poverty, the report said.

Much of that is likely due to poor economic opportunities and a need for jobs in those areas, Watney said. And it may only get worse because fewer children are living on those areas - meaning less in the way of a tax base and money for education, she said.

"The economic recovery hasn't necessarily hit our rural communities, and we certainly hear that when we go talk to folks," Watney said.

Colorado's overall turnaround in child poverty came at a slower pace than in many other states after the Great Recession, Watney said.

One possible reason: Policies such as the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, which limit spending and tax increases in Colorado, she said. The issue re-emerged this spring when state lawmakers began mulling whether to ask voters to spend excess revenue, or proceed with tax rebates.

Other nearby states have appeared to reinvest money in ways that better help children, Watney said.

"It takes a little extra time in Colorado to recover from a recession," she said. "And I think some of that may have to do with some of our fiscal constraints."

Along with disproportionately high poverty rates, rural counties also had lower scores in maternal and infant health.

The report found higher teen birth rates, less prenatal care and a greater chance of mothers smoking during pregnancy in those areas.

Meanwhile, the state's overall teen birth rate has declined by more than half since 2000, the report said.

One program in particular - which offers long-term, removable birth control devices to teens in low-income families - was pivotal in reducing the number of such pregnancies, Watney said.

"When young women have access to reliable contraception choices, they're able to wait and make decisions that will let them stay in school and, again, get that education they need to be able to access a good job," Watney said.

A bill clearing $5 million to continue the program was introduced this year, but its prospects for passage remain uncertain.

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