The high cost of High Country living

Saying it’s expensive to live up here is kind of like complaining of the heat in Scottsdale. Those of us running families know all too well that, in addition to the high cost of housing, everything up here simply costs more. From a box of cereal to a visit to the doctor, it sometimes seems like a vast conspiracy to overcharge mountain dwellers for anything and everything exists around every corner.

I don’t mean that literally, but the end result is the same as a conspiracy. High rents drive up the cost of everything locally, and that’s on top of all those national trends pushing up the price tag on gas, milk, corn and, more than anything, health care. We love our mountain lifestyle, but scenery doesn’t pay the rent.

That the middle class is under enormous strain financially is not an unobserved phenomenon. One interesting new book comes from Nan Mooney, and it’s called “Not Keeping Up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class.” It’s always good to put some numbers to econo-whining, so here’s a few from the book:

  • Ninety percent of those filing for bankruptcy today are middle class.
  • Average college loan debt is nearly $20,000; average graduate school loan debt is $46,000.
  • Credit card debt has risen 31 percent in the past five years; middle- and low-income households owe an average of $8,650; a third owe over $10,000.
  • Health care premiums have increased at five times the rate of inflation since 2000.
  • Mortgages have now reached 96 percent of disposable income.
  • Twenty-three percent of public college graduates and 38 percent of private college graduates would have an unmanageable level of debt if they were to live on a teacher’s starting salary.

Does that make you feel any better? Didn’t think so. Needless to say, when people like Mooney write these books, they don’t even get into what it’s like for middle-class folks trying to make it in a place with an extra-inflated cost of living. Locally, we’re starting to wake up to the reality of what it might look like around here if the middle class is, literally, driven out of the valley. It’s why our county commissioners, town council and other leaders are pushing for things like a more comprehensive affordable housing program, more help with early childhood education and other social services – as well as anything else we can do to ease the burden on those who make the county run.

It’s easy for some to criticize families for, well, being families with kids — expensive kids. I love the argument that those who can’t afford it should leave – or that they should never have come in the first place; or that they shouldn’t have kids if they “can’t afford them.” Pretty much a non-starter of an observation if we begin from a place that says community begins with people, which, at some point, means babies.

Sadly enough, plenty of middle-class families do make the decision to leave because they can’t make it in the High Country. We all may have different ideas of what, exactly, is meant by “making it,” but for most it means being able to afford a decent home, paying the bills and having some left over for recreation, vacation, savings, retirement and the like. Many of those benchmarks are simply more attainable on the Front Range — or “back home” in Iowa, Pennsylvania, etc.

No solutions here today; just a few statements to maybe help us realize we’re not alone – and that keeping our heads above water is a very real problem for mountain families.


Alex Miller can be reached at

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