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Colorado's Refugees Can Become Trapped In Chronic Poverty, Study Finds

A refugee from Burma works to pay his gas bill at his home in Greeley.
Esther Honig
A refugee from Burma works to pay his gas bill at his home in Greeley.

Between the high cost of housing and shrinking federal funding for local organizations, many refugees resettled in Colorado find themselves stuck in chronic poverty. That’s according to new research from the University of Colorado Boulder, which studied refugee communities across the Front Range. 

Xiaoling Chen, a geography doctoral student,wanted to understand why refugees became trapped in low-wage jobs, despite the state and federal resources intended to help them succeed.   

“So we (wanted) to find out why and in order to help the federal government address these challenges,” Chen said in a recent interview.  

In her study, published this fall with support from the University of Colorado Denver, Chen explains that, despite their level of education or English proficiency, refugees in the US tend to have lower incomes compared to American born citizens; 50 percent of the refugees she surveyed said their first job in the US did not match their education level.

According to data from the Colorado Refugee Services Program, refugees in Colorado tend to find low-skill jobs in light manufacturing and hospitality, where they earn a monthly household income of around $700 to $999 in their first year. By their fourth year, their earnings have hardly increased and many said it’s not enough to support their family. 

In her research, Chen aimed to identify the barriers faced by refugees in their first eight months in Colorado. What she discovered is that the high cost of housing in cities like Denver have forced refugee agencies to get clients employed faster, often within their first three months in the US. Even though refugees are given financial assistance for the first eight months, those funds are quickly consumed by rent according to several agency workers interviewed for the study. 

“Once the money runs out, we have nothing else,” one anonymous agency worker said. “If they don’t get a job to fill the gap, they don’t pay their bills, they get evicted from their homes, they become homeless. We have no other way of supporting them.”  

According to Chen’s study, the race to find any employment, regardless of how well it pays, is compounded by the inadequate funding allocated to refugee agencies. One agency interviewed for the study explained that they only had enough money to fund one 12-hour cultural competency course, which is given in the first month of the refugee’s arrival.

“You are so overwhelmed at that point, who knows how much of that information you actually absorb,” said another source. 

Resettlement organizations also reported pressure from federal agencies to meet certain performance targets, like getting clients employed and off financial assistance in as little as 120 days, or face penalties. This came at the cost of refugees becoming sufficiently integrated with American society, according to one expert.

Since Chen began her research in 2016, budgets for local refugee agencies have been further restricted as the overall number of refugee arrivals has plummeted under the Trump administration. For the year 2020, the annual cap was recently set at 18,000, the lowest number since the refugee program was created by congress in 1980. These restrictions have reportedly triggered layoffs while other agencies have closed down completely.   

Among her policy recommendations, Chen suggests Colorado develop affordable housing for refugees and that the federal agency, Office for Refugee Resettlement, adjust the definition for “economic self-sufficiency” to reflect actual living standards. In the end, said Chen, these investments would benefit everyone. 

“We can see that if the federal government and the state government can give more support to the resettlement community ... those refugees can enrich the culture in the US and help to establish our economy,” Chen said.  

Copyright 2019 KUNC

As a reporter for Harvest Public Media, I travel throughout northern Colorado, and parts of Wyoming and Nebraska to cover agriculture and rural issues.