Battle Born, Poverty Bred

Nevada’s childhood poverty rate leads the nation in growth. What does that say about our state?

Illustration By Jesse J. Sutherland

Illustration By Jesse J. Sutherland

Nevada tends to be at the top of the bad lists and at the bottom of the good lists. With Britney Spears soon to be performing here, it’s now appropriate to say, “Oops, we did it again.”

“National Child Poverty Rate Stagnates at 22.6 Percent,” says a new report from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute. That’s almost unchanged from the year before but an increase of 25.3 percent nationally from 2007, before the Great Recession.

Guess which state led the pack? Since 2007, the rate of children under age 18 in poverty in Nevada has risen by about one-third, slightly more than the runner-up, Florida. When the study divides poverty rates into rural, urban and suburban areas, Nevada’s biggest leap in poverty rates was in suburban areas—reflecting growth patterns in heavily suburban Southern Nevada.

“The cause for an increase in child poverty can be difficult to explain,” says Jessica Carson, a sociologist and researcher for the Carsey Institute who co-authored the study. “Rising poverty tends to result not necessarily from a single policy change”—as might be true with, say, an increase in welfare participation—“but rather is borne of a broader economic and social climate.”

Nationally, that may seem easily explained by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But some states fared far better than others. Carson suggested places where “there is plenty of well-paying work to go around” contrast markedly with those where “unemployment may have peaked above national averages, and may remain high, driving down median incomes.” She also pointed to possible “changes in the quality of jobs available” (instead of the number of jobs), which includes factors such as working for less pay or fewer hours or weeks.

That may sound familiar. Ten years ago this month, Nevada’s unemployment rate was 5 percent. It peaked at 14 percent in September 2010 and is still close to double digits. But underemployment also is a problem. Remember when the joke was that Nevada’s state bird was the crane? Those well-paying construction jobs on the Strip and in the housing market disappeared. So did the housing market. Fewer tourists—and, recently, more tourists spending less money and putting less emphasis on gambling—have reduced the need for already low-paying casino jobs.

The effect of state policies is tricky to follow, Carson says. For all of the statistics kept out there, some programs such as welfare count as “cash income” while food stamps don’t—and those numbers affect how poverty rates are determined. Another factor: “The demographic composition of the state might have changed,” Carson says. “Has the state seen a lot of in- or out-migration? Tracing the root causes of increasing poverty in a particular state is a real challenge.”

Amid predictions that Nevada won’t regain its old job numbers until 2018, movement into the state seems unlikely to reach its previous phantasmagorical levels. But migration out of and within the state remains a problem: large numbers of people not only coming and going, but also moving around Southern Nevada, possibly reflecting their changing economic status and forcing children to constantly adapt to new schools.

More than half a century ago, a reformer called our home “the sorry state of Nevada,” and attitudes have changed less than we might imagine. Nevadans continue to accept their way of life, which has produced any number of other indicators that a society based almost entirely on tourism, mining and federal projects never has created a proper social-safety net and never will. The rate of child poverty is a reminder of even greater poverty—economic, political, social and intellectual.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.