Three years ago, U.S. News and World Report came out with its state rankings, wherein it deemed Colorado the top state economy in the country. I took the outlet’s word. But I also wrote an op-ed musing about the contradiction between our state’s high economic marks and marks in other categories, like opportunity and education, that we fell significantly on.
“Why should a state with a such a great economy do so poorly in these other areas?” I asked.
When U.S. News and World Report released its findings again in July, with the same result, it was harder for me to accept.
I hate to be a buzzkill, but we have to stop drinking our own Kool-Aid. It’s time to start quibbling with this declaration. How great of an economy can a state have if it can’t maintain its roads, fund its schools, or lower the cost of housing?
To answer this question, we should reflect on what an economy actually is. The word “economy” describes how a community uses and distributes it resources. Look at what this economic ranking is based on, and you see the use only three measures: new business creation, growth, and unemployment. It’s great Colorado leads the nation in these important categories, but our standing in these ranks prompts so many questions. Who is creating new businesses and where are they? Who is moving to our state and why? How much are jobs paying and how many jobs must one work to live here?
Until you can answer these questions (and many others), we can’t really proclaim — let alone boast — anything about the nature of Colorado’s economy.
For instance, while we know unemployment has gone down, we’ve also increased the percentage of low-wage jobs in Colorado’s economy. We’ve seen the number of Coloradans living at below the self-sufficiency standard go up as well. This is all happening against the backdrop of some of the steepest increases in housing and child care costs in the country.
My goal here isn’t to lessen Colorado’s economic accomplishments, but rather to underscore the important fact that an economy is made up of much more than the economic indicators we regularly read about as we scroll through our morning news stream. An economy is not just a measure of productivity and employment. When we can’t afford child care and when pay increases don’t meet the pace of housing cost increases, we need to stop consoling ourselves by saying, “Well, at least the economy is doing well.” The economy is not doing well if the people living in it can’t enjoy it.
For 25 years, Colorado has argued about our fiscal policies, how much money our state government can use to lower costs, how high our tax rates should be, and how these decisions are made fairly and equitably. During that time, many of us have pointed to Colorado’s shockingly low investments in public education, transportation, and health. Countless reports show widening gaps and missed opportunities to do better. Even if you haven’t seen the data or read the reports, it’s easy to see how dysfunctional our major transportation corridors have become and other obvious economic consequences Coloradans face daily. These aren’t just footnotes in Colorado’s story; they are Colorado’s story.
The ideological opponents to changing our fiscal policies point to economic rankings like those in U.S. News and World Report and say they are because of our fiscal limitations. We argue they have happened in spite of them.
I’ll admit it’s a frustrating argument because there’s no real way to settle it. That is, unless we take a big step back and admit our economy is good for some, but not others. Moreover, the “some” it’s working for are liable to leave if things take a turn, while everyone else represent the future of Colorado no matter our fortunes.
When we insist we stop drawing artificial distinctions between our economy, our communities, and our public systems, we see things for what they are. If we do this, we would most certainly take much more dramatic action to address those other categories. Until we do, the Colorado Kool-Aid we’ve been drinking will have a very bitter taste.
Scott Wasserman is the president of the Bell Policy Center in Denver.