The middle class is shrinking in Colorado

New apartment development in North Denver. (Photo by Allen Tian)
New apartment development in North Denver. (Photo by Allen Tian)

Coloradans are under too much financial pressure to achieve a middle-class lifestyle, even with what are considered middle-class earnings, according to a study released this week.

The study, prepared by the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Public Affairs, also showed that the share of families classified as middle income — that is, earning between double and two-thirds the state’s median family income of $59,000 — declined between 2000 and 2016. The middle-class lifestyle remains accessible to dual-earner, highly-educated families and a challenge for almost everyone else.

“This report offers us a much clearer picture of what Coloradans are struggling with and how our communities need to respond with a profound sense of urgency,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, which commissioned the study with support from The Colorado Trust.

The Colorado-based study, “Colorado’s Middle-Class Families: Characteristics and Cost Pressures,” outlines who makes up the middle class in Colorado, and what is straining the average family budget. The report used U.S. Census Bureau data to compare actual incomes to the hypothetical and typical costs of leading a middle-class lifestyle. It found that the share of Colorado families considered middle-income declined from 53 percent in 2000 to 49.6 percent in 2016.

Households in 2016 needed to earn between about $39,000 and $118,000 — depending upon their size — to be considered middle-income in Colorado.

And Colorado families are facing financial pressures that make staying in the middle class difficult, and achieving a middle-class lifestyle next to impossible.

Among the reasons: Colorado families are struggling with 349 percent more student debt than in 2000. Colorado’s median home value in 2016 was nearly five times that of the median household income, ranking seventh highest across the country, meaning that many families are spending a higher share of their income toward housing.

In addition, other costs have increased while the average family income has remained stagnant. The report’s authors, professors Todd Ely and Geoffrey Propheter, included homeownership or rental housing, health care, automobile ownership, retirement savings, college savings and vacation in the middle-income budget.

The strain is clear: health care costs increased 70 percent and in-state college costs at a public, four-year university increased 85 percent since 2000. During that same period, the average income for a two-parent, two-child family lagged, increasing only by 20 percent increase.

The report goes even further by examining the make-up of middle-income families — looking at family type, age, race and ethnicity, and educational attainment.

Not only is the middle class shrinking, but Hispanic and black families are underrepresented, making up only 8.1 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively, while white families make up 76 percent. That proportion has barely changed since 2000.

Having fewer children helps. One-third of Colorado’s middle class is made up of families with no children, which is a higher share than any other family composition type.  Graduate degrees are also becoming a must — a quarter of middle-income families and nearly half of upper-income families in Colorado have at least one graduate degree, according to the study.

The report’s finding could better guide public policy, said Propheter.

“If we know the tradeoffs families are making to access and maintain a middle-class lifestyle, then lawmakers have a better sense of which public policies can help families,” he said. “For instance, we know child care is expensive, and programs partially subsidizing daycare provide financial relief for families who might otherwise forego children or make other sacrifices that keep them out of the middle class indefinitely.”

Reporter Alex Burness contributed to this story.

Photo by Allen Tian


  1. What we are really looking at is the effects of inflation, which is the smoke and mirrors of how the elite make the masses believe that they are are making progress. We buy a $100,000 house today that we sell for $200,000 in 8 years and think we did well. Until we realize that it would cost $300,000 to build that same house. It is an illusion that we continue to fall for. Our middle class is vanishing and we will soon be like much of the world with the working poor and the tiny fraction of the wealthy.

  2. Tracking back and finding the full study makes for some interesting reading. It is at

    Reading that over 16 years, the middle class declined from 53.0% to 49.6% is a bit troubling. But in the original research, finding where those 3.4% went helps out: Lower income went from 30.5% to 32.1% [+1.6%]. Upper income went from 16.5% to 18.3% [+1.8%]. Given the difficulty of defining “middle income,” the rise of income disparity is scarcely surprising.

    Congressional Research Service defines things a bit differently, but found:
    “Between 2000 and 2015 — a period that includes two economic recessions — average incomes fell in the bottom three quintiles of the distribution, and the previous rapid growth
    in mean incomes enjoyed at the top of the distribution stalled. As a result, the income distribution continued to
    become more unequal, but at a slower pace than before 2000.”

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