If it feels like you are making decent money but still living paycheck to paycheck, you probably are.

Despite one of the most robust economies in the U.S., Colorado’s middle class is shrinking faster than the rest of the country, according to a recent study by the Bell Policy Center that shows Colorado’s middle-income families are struggling to make ends meet.

Jobs are plentiful, but raises haven’t kept pace with housing and health care costs. The availability and price of child care is pushing young families’ budgets to the brink.

It’s a “befuddling contrast of a top economy with a shrinking middle class,” the Bell Policy Center said in its study. Achieving and living a middle-class lifestyle in Colorado may no longer be as simple as earning a mid-range income.

The middle class — defined by the Pew Research Center as those earning two-thirds to twice a defined area’s median household income — shrinks substantially when it includes being able to afford “aspirational costs” such as saving for retirement and college, buying a home and taking vacations, expenses that were once mainstays of a middle-class life.

Fort Collins’ housing woes are well documented. Median home prices inch toward $500,000, and median monthly rents top $1,300, forcing half of Fort Collins families to spend more than 30 percent of their paychecks on housing.

MORE ON HOME PRICES:Home sales slow as prices soar beyond $400,000

More than 30 percent of Colorado’s middle-class families have no children living at home, but the other two-thirds that have kids are struggling to balance budgets without making trade-offs, according to the Bell Policy Center.

Coupled with high housing costs, the lack of available and affordable child care is a major barrier keeping many young families from achieving a middle-class lifestyle, according to Talent 2.0, a collaboration of Northern Colorado businesses, government agencies, nonprofits and chambers of commerce, which sees the issue as a major barrier to attracting and retaining top talent.

What child care costs

The median household income for a family of four in Fort Collins in 2016 was $85,000. By Pew’s definition, that means middle-class earners here would make between $56,666 and $170,000. It’s a wide range that can make a difference in one’s ability to buy a house, pay for child care, save for college and retirement and take a modest vacation every now and then.

Today, according to Bell, achieving a middle-class lifestyle typically requires:

  • A two-income household
  • At least one graduate degree
  • At least one income from a management or professional occupation that pays well above median wages

While the quickest path to the middle class takes two incomes, two working parents need someplace reliable to leave the kids.

And full-time child care can cost between $730 and $1,200 or more per month, depending on whether it’s home-based or center-based care. Infant care is even more expensive.

In Larimer County, more than 80 percent of women and 95 percent of men ages 25 to 44 work, according to a Talent 2.0 white paper on child care in the county. Without child care, there’s no chance of employment, the paper states.

But the cost of child care for one kid takes about 18 percent of a family income, based on the 2015 Larimer County median income of about $65,000. The percent goes up to 37 percent of income for two kids at the same median income.

Acknowledging the cost of child care is out of reach for many families, Talent 2.0 says addressing the problem “is critical to maintaining a healthy economic environment. We will neither attract nor retain a quality workforce in coming years unless we address the issue of access to affordable, quality child care now.”

It’s not just a family problem, said Katie Watkins, community outreach director for Base Camp, a before- and after-school program for children in Fort Collins.

“We all depend on someone who depends on child care,” she said.

Watkins sees the problem from an employer and employee perspective. She and her husband, Steven, pay $1,700 a month — about the same as their mortgage — for child care four days a week for 4-year-old Emmaline and 2-year-old Esmae.

She knows many co-workers at Base Camp can’t afford the cost of child care and worries some may have to find higher-paying jobs or stay home with their children.

The hippocampus also is smaller in size, which adversely affects memory.

“If we get the treatment to the child, what we find is there is this beautiful thing that happens called post-traumatic growth,” Bennett said. “If we heal the biological injury of trauma, not only do we re-correct that brain structure, you can do this at any age, but because the young brain is developing so rapidly, the earlier we get the treatment, the more effective and quickly the treatment will take hold.”

A key piece to mitigating these problems includes promoting prenatal care to create a biological environment for the brain to adapt or grow in a healthy way, and also creating trauma-informed schools.

“By the time these kids reach graduation in an average high school, two out of every three kids will have had experienced a trauma in their life by age 18,” Bennett said. “Too many of those go untreated.”

Pam Walker, the ECHO and Family Center council director, said without identification and intervention, children will struggle in school from the beginning.

She asked guest legislators, political candidates and even voters in the audience to support children and to invest in the very young when allocating available funds.

The ECHO and Family Center Early Childhood Council of Fremont County since 1976 has served infants, toddlers and preschool children through a collaborative early childhood system that addresses gaps in services and funding for children prenatal to kindergarten entry and their families.

They address learning and development, family support and parent education, and health and well-being through a number of programs and events.

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