Film highlights struggle of low-income women

Suzanne Hoffman
Special to the Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — Colorado is home to approximately a half million women — 9.6 percent of the population — who live at or near the poverty level. Many of these women are single mothers whose annual median income of $26,705 is the lowest of any family type in Colorado. Childcare consumes approximately half of these meager salaries.

Each year, more than 5,700 high school girls turn their backs on education, dropping out and setting themselves on a lifetime path of often-insurmountable challenges. With Colorado women making 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, single motherhood and a lack of education are powerful obstacles many Colorado women encounter on the road to self-sustainability.

Those are but some of the sobering statistics that drive the Women’s Foundation of Colorado’s mission “to build resources and lead change so that every woman and girl in Colorado achieves her full potential.”

In addition to advocacy, research and education, since its founding in 1987, the Women’s Foundation of Colorado has worked for that mission. Studying the difficulties low-wage earning women have in realizing self-reliance is one of their ongoing projects.

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A Day for Women

The foundation and other womens’ advocates want to bring these situations to light in time for International Women’s Day March 8.

The day began in 1909, when the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day to be observed on Feb. 28. In 1910, at a confluence of international delegations from 17 countries at the second Conference on Working Women in Copenhagen, International Women’s Day was created. Since 1917, International Women’s Day has occured annually on March 8. In many countries, including Afghanistan, Cuba, Uzbekistan and Uganda, it is now a national holiday.

This year, the Vail Valley Regional Committee of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado will commemorate the international event on March 11 with an airing of “Losing Ground: The Cliff Effect.” WFCO and long-time foundation supporter, Janet Mordecai, funded the I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS documentary that takes viewers into the lives of three women who encountered the cliff effect as they struggled to achieve self-reliance.

The event on Tuesday, March 11 from 5:30-7 p.m. at Colorado Mountain College on 150 Miller Ranch Road in Edwards is free and open to the public. Refreshments and celebration of International Women’s Day begin at 5:30 p.m. with documentary screening at 6 p.m., followed by a panel discussion and legislative update.

Falling off a Cliff

“The cliff effect” that is the subject of the documentary refers to the struggle of low-income families to get ahead, while in some cases, the system penalizes them for promotions or wage increases.

In 1996, Bill Clinton signed a revolutionary welfare reform law designed to “end welfare as we know it.” Nearly 20 years later, thanks to unintended consequences, the system has failed many low-income families clawing their way to self-sufficiency.

One-third of Colorado’s children live in low-income families where one or two parents work fulltime in low wage jobs. Only the panoply of work support benefits helps these struggling families meet their needs.

In Colorado and many other states, low-income families find that wage increases and promotions often send low-wage earners through the income ceilings of various programs, and they lose valuable benefits that often outweighs the wage increases. The result — a worse financial condition than before job advancements. This paradoxical situation is known as the “cliff effect.”

Working for change

Work support benefits include tax credits, housing, food, childcare and health care that are often far more valuable to the working poor than the raises they receive. These benefits help keep families at or above the financial break-even point. Unfortunately, promotions and increases in wages often send families careening off the financial cliff into an abyss from which escape to self-sufficiency is nearly impossible.

One “solution” for low-wage earners is to forego promotions and salary increases, resulting in lost opportunities to climb the work ladder. In 2007, Columbia University’s National Center for Children and Poverty studied the cliff effect, looking at “Colorado’s curious penalty for increased earnings” in seven Colorado counties, including Eagle County. The report found that unlike most states, Colorado allows counties to set their own income ceilings for childcare assistance programs. Unfortunately, the patchwork quilt of eligibility requirements resulted in disparities between counties where someone eligible in one county is ineligible in a neighboring county.

WFCO advocates changes that would allow gradual reduction of benefits over time rather than sudden cessation, thereby eliminating the cliff effect and helping families to transition to self-sufficiency. To read WFCO’s research on the cliff effect, visit

To attend the March 11 film screening, RSVP to For more information, contact Rebecca Matlon at 970-926-0331.

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