Depending on family size, earning in the low six figures in Boulder County might only cover the basic necessities of housing, child care, food, health care, transportation and taxes, according to a new report. Credit: Page Light Studios

Rising home prices and other costs of living in Boulder County are redefining what it means to live on the financial edge. 

It turns out that being “economically self-sufficient” in Boulder County these days takes an income of about $107,500 for a family of four, according to a new report that looks at how much income families of different types need to earn to make ends meet in each Colorado county.

That same household of four needed only $75,906 annually to be self-sufficient in 2015, and $85,836 in 2018, the study says. 

Boulder County has the state’s fifth-highest income standard. Eagle County is the least affordable, with the report saying a four-person household needs $118,000 to live without needing outside public or private help. 

The Self-Sufficiency Standard for Colorado 2022 was prepared for the Denver-based Colorado Center on Law and Policy by the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington.

Its conclusions will be presented Wednesday, May 10, at the main Boulder Public Library. 

“This is a great opportunity for people to see the data and understand the economic pressures that are creating problems in our community,” said Jennifer Banyan, vice president of programs at the Community Foundation Boulder County. It is one of several meeting sponsors, along with the Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA), Sister Carmen, OUR Center and the Boulder Chamber.

While earning in the low six figures may still sound on the edge of affluence, it actually supports just a “bare bones” lifestyle covering the basic necessities of housing, child care, food, health care, transportation and taxes, Charles Brennan, the Center on Law and Policy’s deputy director for research, told Boulder Reporting Lab. It does not cover “travel, movies or going out to eat, things we’d hope all households have the opportunity to enjoy,” he said.

Prospects are the same for other kinds of families locally, the report noted. A single adult needs to bring in $41,058 to make ends meet, while an adult supporting one pre-schooler must earn $80,435. An adult with one preschooler plus one school-age child needs an income of $99,411.

In 2019, the most recent figures available, nearly a quarter of area families didn’t meet that standard, the report found. That means the community is pricing out teachers, firefighters, and “basically anyone not making more than $40 an hour,” said Ana Fernandez Frank, public policy and communications outreach coordinator at EFAA.

EFAA’s food bank is seeing the results of income deficits and inflation, Fernandez Frank said, noting it is now serving some 600 families a week, compared with about 425 last year and 350 weekly pre-pandemic. 

“That shows the crisis is not over,” Fernandez Frank said. ”Inflation and the high cost of living have not subsided. We are still dealing with the consequences.”

The report used standardized population, housing, food and other data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Fair Market Rents from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, among other sources, and adjusted it geographically and by family size. It is updated every two years. 

Brennan said the income needed to live self-sufficiently in Boulder County far exceeds the official federal poverty line.

The 2023 federal poverty line is $14,580 for one person; $19,720 for two people; $24,860 for a three-person family; and $30,000 for a family of four. The poverty line isn’t adjusted for different regions’ cost of living, except for Alaska and Hawaii. Brennan explained that the federal criteria, set in the 1960s, is based on family expenses being three times higher than food costs, a measure that he says “no longer meets the needs of families.”

Nationally, food now averages a far smaller roughly 12% of income, but other costs are way up, he said. Health care costs for one adult and one child in Boulder County, for example, have soared about 180 percent since 2000. Child care costs have more than doubled. And already-high housing costs went up by about 80 percent. 

“Throughout Colorado, the Self-Sufficiency Standard shows that incomes well above the official federal poverty thresholds are nevertheless far below what is necessary to meet families’ basic needs,” the report said.

As a result, Brennan said more Boulder County residents live in some degree of need than official figures reflect — 23.9 % in 2019, compared with 9.3% under federal guidelines — but many higher-earning families aren’t eligible for help because eligibility frequently is pegged to the official guidelines. Additionally, many of these families don’t seek help where they are eligible because of a perceived stigma.

Fernandez Frank agreed. “The need is growing in our communities among people who never thought they’d need assistance,” she said.

The report advocates a range of sweeping public policies to raise incomes and cut costs, such as living wages, child care assistance, paid sick and family medical leave, plus better education, training and more jobs with advancement potential. 

Combining such expansive supports and programs could reduce a family’s needs by about half, according to Brennan, resulting in more families being able to buy a house, save for college, and even “build a bit of wealth.”

Without such help in place, Banyan said, solid working families who don’t earn enough to live here are steadily moving from Boulder County.

“Until we solve systemic issues and have livable wages, we are going to keep losing our middle households — teachers, firefighters, baristas, cashiers. If these families don’t earn livable wages somehow, we won’t have a healthy community.”

“We may not solve the whole thing,” Fernandez Frank said, “but we can help with part of that, and that brings the whole community up.”

Sally Bell is a former major city newspaper reporter with many years of experience, who in retirement now freelances occasionally because she misses it. She has lived in Boulder for more than 20 years.

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