Losing Ground: State officials seek examination of inequality
February 17, 2013
Two Colorado lawmakers plan to push for a comprehensive examination of racial and ethnic inequality in the state as a precursor to future legislation aimed at closing some of the gaps that separate Latinos and African Americans from whites.
State Reps. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and Angela Williams, D-Denver, said they plan to introduce the measure, which would create a commission to take a detailed look at specific areas where racial and ethnic minorities lag in Colorado. Their plan is to examine everything from education funding to job pay and contracting, to major disparities in incarceration rates.
"We hope to heighten the awareness — and that Colorado will stop avoiding this conversation," Williams said. Inequities can be addressed, she said, "because we're such a great state."
The move comes on the heels of "Losing Ground," an 18-month I-News investigation that found that across a host of measures Latinos and African-Americans in Colorado are worse off compared to the state's white's residents than they were before sweeping civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Using six decades of census data as well as statistics compiled by the state health department and the state prison system, I-News found that the state's largest minority groups lag more than ever in areas like family income, home ownership, poverty and overall health.
Take home ownership. In 1970, almost 60 percent of Latino households were owner-occupied; today, it's just beneath 50 percent. In measuring family income, I-News found that in 1970 black families earned 73 percent of what white families earned, and Latino families earned 72 percent; by 2010, those numbers had fallen to 60 percent and 50 percent, respectively.
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"If you look at this and then you look at Martin Luther King and the 1960s, and see where we are, that is the most difficult part — we've moved backward," Williams said.
Most experts say that rising racial and ethnic inequities do not bode well for a state in which minorities are the fastest-growing population.
It is not clear how much support Salazar and Williams can expect for their proposal, which has not yet been drafted.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said he could not commit to backing the proposed commission until he sees how it would work. And state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said that while she wouldn't necessarily oppose it, she also hoped to consider alternatives to examine the problem.
"I don't know that I have an objection to what they're saying, but are resources best used in that way, or should we be looking at work outside the Capitol to sort it out?" Roberts said. "I think we need to have some honest conversation that is devoid of partisan politics."
Another legislator, Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs , said racial and economic gaps in Colorado are holding the state back and called for legislation to give families a financial boost and — eventually — a revamping of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, known as TABOR, and the state's tax system.
"The reality is that when those of us at the bottom of the income level do well, we all do well," Morse said. "We've got a big chunk of folks that are not making ends meet and that has all kinds of negative ramifications whether its crime, drug use — all of those kinds of things when people don't have hope."
But not everyone agrees on what changes need to be made. Numerous experts attributed some of the gaps to poverty, and some of the inequality has been attributed to a dramatic rises in the number of births to young, single mothers and the number of households that are headed by a single parent.
This session, Morse said Democratic state lawmakers are backing legislation that would provide a state earned income credit and child credit to struggling, working families of all races.
"It's not race that determines this, it is income level and single-headed households," Morse said.
The main culprit for inadequate state funding, Morse said, is TABOR, the measure passed by voters in 1992 that limits revenue and spending.
"TABOR just ensures that we don't fund much of anything very well at all," he said. "And that creates and exacerbates this gap."
Only two other states spent less per student on higher education in 2011. Between 1992 and 2010, Colorado sank from 24th to 40th among the states in overall funding for K-12 education, and is ranked 45th on education spending when compared to per capita income.
In the end, Hickenlooper said, arguing about what part of the disparities are tied to race and what part are tied to poverty — or other factors — misses the point.
"Here, we've got some data that shows some kids are starting out at a significant disadvantage with all the other kids, and it's not the American way, right?" Hickenlooper said.
And Roberts questioned the role of government in solving complex community dynamics decades in the making.
"I don't know that government's got a role, really, in restoring the importance of the family structure," she said. "I think that comes more from somebody's own closest family and friends, community, faith orientation — that sort of thing, I think, is where we could see some movement away from the single-parent household."
"Those are not simple answers to provide," Hickenlooper said. "This is a country that's based on all the different freedoms — not just freedom of speech, but freedom of mobility, right, freedom of choice in terms of what you eat.
"We've been having this debate for 200 years. How does government play a role in helping to find a quality of life for people?"