When a decent wage isn’t enough
Vail, CO Colorado
EAGLE COUNTY ” Some people wish for new cars, dream vacations and big homes. Jenny Garcia’s wish is to pay her bills.
Garcia, a 37-year-old single mother of three, makes $16.50 an hour as an accountant for The Resort Company, which owns the Charter at Beaver Creek, The Lion’s Square Lodge, and Montaneros. She has health benefits and steady job. But still struggles to make ends meet.
Garcia and her children, ages 7, 6 and 3, live in an apartment in Middle Creek, an affordable housing complex in Vail. Her rent is $1,000 a month. Daycare costs another $1,000. Pre-school costs $600, and an after-school program costs another $400.
Every month she ends up about $500 short, she said.
“I don’t pay any bills, I just pay rent and daycare and the bills keep coming, pretty much,” Garcia said.
The federal government says Garcia makes too much money to qualify for public programs like food stamps and Medicaid. That also means Garcia’s children can’t qualify for the state’s public health insurance.
About 20 percent of Eagle Countians who fill out applications for public assistance are denied help because they make too much money, said Kathleen Lyons, self-sufficiency manager for Eagle County Health and Human Services.
Another 20 percent begin the process of applying for public assistance, but after talking to the health department’s employees, decide not to hand in the application. In many cases, they learn they make too much to qualify for help and stop the application process, Lyons said.
Living near Vail may distort wages and housing costs, but it doesn’t change the income caps used to qualify people for federal or state help. While the federal government adjust its federal poverty income guidelines for Hawaii and Alaska, their guidelines are the same for Vail as they are for Little Rock, Ark.
That means people like Garcia have few places to turn for help.
Garcia sometimes gets help from friends and family. She’s also turned to The Salvation Army, which will help people in emergency situations once a year, regardless of their income, said Tsu Wolin-Brown, director of The Salvation Army of Vail.
In the past year, The Salvation Army has helped cover rent or utilities for several people who hold full-time jobs with benefits. Employees from Wal-Mart, Colorado Mountain Medical and Colorado Mountain News Media ” the parent company of the Vail Daily ” have come in asking for help.
Sometimes they have a medical problem that keeps them from working. Oftentimes, they just don’t make enough money to make ends meet.
The Salvation Army helped Garcia with rent one month. The year before, they helped her pay a utility bill. The organization’s policy is to help residents in emergency situations only once a year. But Garcia has problems every month.
This month, Garcia hopes to borrow a friend’s credit card so she can pay her rent. She needs to use the cash in her bank account for the day-care bill and she plans to pay back the rent she borrows with her next paycheck, she said.
“It’s sad to say, but it’s normal for us,” Garcia said. “For the most part, the kids are healthy, and we just keep going. I’m nervous every month, trying to get money to last from my last check.”
Garcia made $31,000 last year ” more than twice the federal poverty level for a family of four. In fact, many jobs that would pay only the minimum wage in most parts of the country, pay double that in Vail.
“One reason people move here is they hear it’s the land of milk and honey, they can come up and make a whopping $10 an hour,” Wolin-Brown said. “Of course, since they are only making $5 or $6 in Texas, it sounds appealing.”
Then they find out that the going rate for a two-bedroom apartment is at least $900 a month, Wolin-Brown said.
There are apartment complexes like Middle Creek, where Garcia lives, that target low-wage earners by offering more affordable rents. Buffalo Ridge in Avon, Lake Creek Village in Edwards, Eagle Villas in Eagle and Holy Cross Village in Gypsum all offer more affordable rents.
But housing isn’t the only problem. Medical emergencies can send firmly middle-class residents looking for help, Wolin-Brown said. Just taking a few weeks off from work can be the difference between making rent or not making rent, she said.
Divorce, or when a spouse moves out to escape an abusive marriage, can send local residents into a financial tailspin, as well.
Even a disabling disease or accident can wreak havoc on a family. That’s because it takes a year for someone who qualifies for disability to start receiving disability payments, Wolin-Brown said. In the meantime, those families have bills to pay and too little money to pay them.
Eagle County officials may have to adhere to federal poverty guidelines, but they recognize that even families making twice the poverty line have trouble here.
Lyons pointed to a 2005 Bell Policy Center study that tracked livable wages across Colorado. According to that study, 28 percent of Eagle Countians live below the self-sufficiency standards set by the Bell Policy Center, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that promotes policies that help low-income families.
A family of four living in a resort area needs to earn almost $48,000 to be considered self-sufficient, according to the study. Garcia made almost $17,000 less than that last year.
Garcia considered taking a second job, but said she wouldn’t be able to be take care of her children if she needed to. Moving back home to Albuquerque wouldn’t help, either, she said. A similar job there would pay only around the minimum wage, she said.
Plus Garcia likes her job. Her employer has promoted her into a higher-paying position and has good health benefits. She works during school hours and can leave everyday to pick up her kids from school or child care.
“That all matters a lot, as opposed to making a little more money, not being able to work all the time and then losing my job,” she said.
In the meantime, Garcia is working with an attorney to get child support from her children’s father. Of course, that costs money, too.
Aside from The Salvation Army, groups like Catholic Charities and the Vail Valley Charitable Fund have helped local residents in emergency situations. The Charitable Fund helps residents with serious medical problems who can’t pay for medical bills or living expenses.
Catholic Charities mostly works with immigrants who can’t qualify for public assistance because of their immigration status, said Luis Zavala, immigrant community advocate for the charity.
But the group also has helped legal residents who need help with rent or utilities when money comes up short.
The county’s public health clinic charges patients on a sliding scale that take into account their income and ability to pay. No one is turned away if they cannot pay, Lyons said.
Because money is so tight, Garcia doesn’t buy her kids Christmas presents. She participated in Adopt-A-Family and her kids got new boots, gloves and coats. Garcia’s dad will send her $100 every now and then.
Right now, she’s about two months behind on her child care bills. Garcia was hoping to get ahead this year, but a bad housing situation made it so her family had to live in local hotels for a few months. Her employer allowed her to stay in one of their hotels for a month.
Garcia hopes she can use her tax return this year to catch up ” anything to make that wish-to-pay list a little shorter.
Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 748-2936, or firstname.lastname@example.org.