Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2014

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ECONOMY:

As economy sinks, demand for social services soars

For at least a year, economists have said Nevada’s economy was “bouncing along the bottom” instead of still searching for it.

The number of residents turning to the state for help tells a different story — if the economy has stopped its slide, then its most vulnerable residents are still in free fall. More than one in 10 Nevadans are on food stamps, a 35 percent jump from a year ago, according to state statistics; welfare rolls have grown 22 percent; and the number getting health care through Medicaid has increased 23 percent.

The Great Recession has Nevada firmly in its grip.

Elliott Parker, chairman of UNR’s Economics Department, offered some of the starkest warnings about Nevada’s economy. Yet even he believed the state had bottomed out a year ago.

“Perhaps I was too optimistic. I think most of us were using garden-variety recessions as a baseline for comparison,” he said in an e-mail. “We need to admit that this is technically a depression.”

To be sure, for years economic data have reflected Nevada’s economic struggles. One index, which combines foreclosure rates, unemployment increases and food stamp growth, has named Nevada the most economically “distressed” state since January 2009, when it surpassed Florida.

But even as 39 states showed improvement in unemployment this month, Nevada tumbled more. In May 2009, the state’s unemployment rate was 11.2 percent. Now it’s 14.2 percent.

The faces behind these numbers can be seen at state welfare offices with their long lines, tense waits and overburdened staffs.

“The stress level in offices is tremendous. Lobbies are overcrowded. Families are feeling like they’re sinking deeper and deeper,” said Miki Allard, staff specialist with the state’s Welfare and Supportive Services Division. “Everybody involved is stressed dramatically.”

At the welfare office on East Flamingo Road on Friday, the line was 150 deep by 7:45 a.m. People had begun arriving more than an hour earlier.

“The only option I have is to come here and see if I can get help,” said Monique Barnes, 22, who waited with her husband and two daughters.

Barnes and her family moved to Las Vegas from Pahrump in May. The Sonic where she worked cut her hours to one a day. She was bringing home $37.75 a week and figured a bigger city would offer better opportunity.

She was wrong.

“I’m disappointed to move and still be in the same position,” Barnes said. “It’s really no jobs out here, period.”

Barnes, who receives food stamps and Medicaid, was waiting to enroll in welfare.

As it deals with record numbers applying for help, the division has processed the “vast majority” of applications — 83 percent — within 30 days, the standard set by the federal government, Allard said.

Last year the Legislature approved an additional 230 positions for welfare offices and Gov. Jim Gibbons’ administration exempted vacant welfare jobs from a statewide hiring freeze. But because of Nevada’s budget deficit, the division, like nearly all other state agencies, has had to institute furloughs.

As people poured into the Flamingo office Friday, a security guard warned it was a furlough day, and there would be long waits.

For the next several hours people streamed in — men with canes, men with skateboards.

Children, bored of sitting quietly, ran from wall to wall, dodging overwhelmed parents who tried to corral them.

Ryan Chastain, 18, sat fiddling with his cell phone. He waited to apply for food stamps for the first time. “My girlfriend’s got $4,000 and that’s going to run out soon. We need money for food,” he said.

Chastain, who is unemployed, hopes to open an air-conditioning business one day. His girlfriend wants to teach history and English. Both have been looking for jobs with no luck.

“She wants to work for a casino and makes enough money to pay for a semester of school,” Chastain said. “You need to get a job to make money to do these things. It’s a circle. The world revolves around money.”

Parker said that in the past couple of quarters, personal income in the state has begun to grow, albeit slowly. But “unemployment tends to lag income growth, and poverty lags that,” he said.

People have been burning through their savings, pawning items, relying on friends and family. The longer hard times continue, “the more they need social services, and the harder it will be to claw their way back once the economy recovers,” he said.

Nevada administrators decided in March 2009 to expand who qualifies for food stamps, called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Previously families had to make 130 percent or less of the poverty level; now they can make 200 percent of the poverty level. A family of three with an income of $3,052 a month or less would qualify for food assistance.

In Clark County, requests for housing assistance have surged in recent months, according to Nancy McLane, director of Clark County Social Service. The program is meant as a last gasp effort to prevent homelessness.

At the same time, because of budget cuts, the county offers one month’s rent assistance instead of three for able-bodied residents. Those with disabilities now receive only six months of housing assistance instead of indefinite help.

The situation illustrates Nevada governments’ tight position. As a hurting workforce increases demand for services, there is less tax revenue to meet that need. The county had been spending about $900,000 a month on housing assistance; it has since scaled that back to about $300,000.

Although the number of people seeking assistance during the past 12 months is grim enough, it’s even more astonishing to consider how far Nevada has fallen since the recession began in late 2007.

The low for cash welfare payments came in March 2007, when there were just over 16,000 recipients. Now there are 30,498. Medicaid recipients totaled 165,000 in April 2007. Nevada now has 263,568. And the number of people on food stamps in April 2007 was just under 125,000. Now it stands at 283,683.

Nannette Perez has a job. She works at the Eagle Mini Mart just off the Strip. But business is slow and employees’ hours are regularly cut, Perez said, so she needs food stamps to make ends meet and feed her six children.

“I’m embarrassed to be on assistance because I know my potential,” Perez, 38, said. “I don’t want to sound snobby and say ‘I’m better than that,’ but I know I am. But I need help.”

Perez’s mother, Mary Carcieri, joined her in the waiting room at the Flamingo welfare office.

Carcieri, 65, moved from California to Las Vegas in January to be closer to Perez. She expected a tough economy, but nothing like this. She had worked for 50 years as a waitress and never before applied for public assistance, she said.

“It’s disheartening, but it will make the difference between whether I eat or starve,” Carcieri said, holding an application for food stamps and health care benefits.

Mother and daughter showed little hope for the future. Politicians and decision-makers just don’t get it, they said.

“The people in office, they already have everything they need,” Perez said. “They try to help us to make themselves feel better, but they don’t see how we live, how we struggle.

“Right now, they are helping the small businesses so they will hire people, but that’s not working. I hope at some point somebody will stop and really say, ‘Let’s help these people.’ ”

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