Why is life in Nevada so lousy?

Nevada is always at the very top of the bad lists and at the bottom of the good lists. No one seems to ask why. We asked some people who love the state.

Photo By David Robert

I can imagine the letters to the editor now:You may not like Nevada, but some of us think it’s the best place in the world to live!” Such comments I can get from politicians, and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t bother talking to any politicians (active ones, anyway) before writing this story. Nevada chauvinism isn’t what I’m after.

That the quality of life in Nevada is lousy isn’t an arguable point except among the dogmatic and chauvinist. It’s an objective reality. We may love the land and the people, we may not want to live anywhere else, but the empirical evidence is indisputable. Consider just the question of life itself—people in Nevada die sooner, according to census statistics. Living in any of the six states surrounding Nevada gets someone significantly more time on this earth. Utah gets you three and a half extra years.

A story about how lousy life is in Nevada doesn’t, of course, deal with the terrain or climate. Rather, it’s about those lists. Every year there are dozens of state-by-state rankings that place Nevada at the wrong end. Nevada’s reputation as a hell hole has become so pronounced and well known that it has been the subject of a page-one story in the New York Times. Nevada has become a case study and national bad example. The lives of some Nevadans are happy, but life in Nevada isn’t.

Each time a new ranking comes out, officials try to explain the immediate topic at issue—teen pregnancy, say, or toxic releases. What we don’t get is efforts to explain not why Nevada is high or low in the latest list, but why Nevada’s quality of life generally is so bad. Why should the overall quality of life be so bad within 120 degrees and 114 degrees longitude and 42 degrees and 35 degrees latitude? Why Nevada and not Pennsylvania or Wyoming or Oklahoma?

“Is it something in the water?” novelist Bernard Schopen asks with a laugh.

Acts of the Legislature always play a role in this discussion, along with money, but that doesn’t really get at it. Legislation and funding are more symptoms, reactions to the problem, not the problem itself. Why has there been indifference to problems by legislators that lead them to provide meager funding for programs? Anyway, I’ll get to money later.

A lot of officials say that the quality of life is bad because of the unhealthful lifestyles of Nevadans, but that’s not what I’m looking for, either—poor personal choices are part of the problem, not the explanation. Why is this state, in particular, filled with people who pursue unhealthful lifestyles?

No. 1, with a bullet
The sheer number of Nevada’s wounds as a society is astonishing. From cradle (a high rate of medically uninsured children) to grave (a high rate of suicide among senior citizens), Nevada is the place sensible people would avoid. The state is at the wrong end of rankings like reading skills, child immunizations, homicide against women, alcohol- and drug-related deaths, toxic releases, firearms deaths, infectious disease, dropout rate (at both high-school and college levels), tobacco use, prenatal care, voter turnout, rate of working people in poverty, suicide young and old, tobacco-related deaths, children’s health, health generally, health insurance coverage, and crimes of all types. One study adjudged Nevada to be the most dangerous state.

Although asking why Nevada is this way seems to be a question we diligently avoid, some people have asked. In 1980, the late political scientist Elmer Rusco took a stab at it. He found some welfare history that would surprise some of today’s Nevadans:

Photo By Brandon Russell

“From 1915 to the mid-1930s … Nevada was not only a state which adopted all three of the categorical programs [experimental categories of aid to poor people then being used by state governments], but was a leader in doing so. Nevada and Montana were the first two states to adopt old age assistance, in 1923, and Nevada was one of the 28 states which passed mothers’ pension laws. … By 1935 Nevada was one of 28 states with old-age pension laws, 27 with aid-to-the-blind laws. … Nevada in 1935 had a rate of 10 children receiving aid for each 1,000 children under 16, compared with a national median of 8 per 1,000. … Actual use of the mothers’ pension was comparatively widespread partly because eligibility requirements were quite broad, in fact in the most generous category among the states. A study of these laws as of 1926 classified Nevada in the most liberal category. … Nevada set compensation at $25 [for the first child], a figure exceeded by only two other states. … Nevada was among the states most willing to support welfare.”

Rusco wasn’t able to account for the change in Nevada’s stance in subsequent years, but by 1955, Collier’s, then one of the nation’s leading magazines, called the state “too rich to accept normal taxes, too poor to maintain its institutions and agencies on a decent twentieth century level, coddling known racketeers … while turning a cold, poormaster’s eye to its poor, its sick, its socially misshapen.”

Of course, in 1931 Nevada made gambling legal, and by the end of the 1940s what had been a bunch of mom-and-pop casinos was becoming an industry. It is tempting to suggest linkage here, but gambling wasn’t the only thing going on. By the 1930s, the state also was a tax haven for rich people, lured into establishing tax residences in Nevada. None of them moved to Nevada to solve social ills, and those who lured them influenced the Legislature to hold down social spending that might cost these new residents money.

The casinos are an easy target, and they surely have a role in what has happened to Nevada, but it is hazardous to look for one thing to blame, one lightning rod that can absorb all our concern. Lightning rods work by the laws of nature; social problems tend to have multiple causes.

The most common excuse of officialdom is also the least credible. Whenever one of these lists comes out, some official will say, “Of course, a lot of this is caused by tourists or transients.” But that’s irrelevant. Nevada taxpayers who must pay $17,572 for each prison inmate per year don’t care whether they’re tourists or residents. Moreover, for a state that lives on tourism and growth, transients are part of the schematic, not an exception to it. The state that lives on tourist money can’t disown the downside of tourism.

Growing up in Nevada and watching what went on around us, I became convinced that two important factors were the state’s outlaw image and the lack of a stake people have in the community because of population turnover. When a state is known for testing the limits of law by making things like prostitution and quack cancer cures legal, it tends to attract people who think that here is a place where rules don’t apply. And when a state has a population that is heavy in newcomers, its residents aren’t going to have much of an investment in the local quality of life. I wondered what evidence there is for these hypotheses. I also wondered about the theories of others, and I started making calls.

Being neighborly
It doesn’t mesh with the view many residents have of the state, but Nevada is one of the nation’s most urban states. Most people live in two metropolitan areas. That affects how much people know each other.

Janice Crumley Pine grew up in Elko, where her father, Newt Crumley, owned a casino hotel. He is given the credit for introducing celebrity entertainment to Nevada casinos, and he also served in the Nevada Senate from 1954 to ‘58. He moved the family to Reno when his daughter got out of high school, and he owned the Holiday Hotel Casino in Reno. Janice Pine watched Reno grow up and became a city councilmember.

“I know that there has to be some critical mass that a community reaches when it no longer has that small-community feel, and I don’t know what it is,” she says. “I’m not sure that Carson City has it, and it’s what, 50,000? And it’s because it’s sprawled everywhere.”

Pine suggests that the myth of the independent Westerner ("We’re in the West, and we’re independent, and nobody’s going to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do,” as she describes it) has been a factor in holding down a sense of the need to look out for each other. And a greater sense of community may well have been a factor in the 1915-1935 period studied by Rusco.

Workers wait for day jobs at the state casual labor office in Sparks. Nevada is plagued by low-wage jobs that have defied the abilities of state officials who tried to do something about the problem.

Photo By David Robert

As people get to know each other less, they can become detached from each other. It’s easier to be alienated from others when we’re not on a first-name basis. Novelist Bernard Schopen (The Big Silence, The Desert Look and The Iris Deception), an inductee in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, thinks that’s a factor.

“We’re getting more and more people jammed into places …” he says. “When I got here 30 years ago, you can remember this, people used to proudly say, ‘I’m a native Nevadan.’ Well, you hardly hear that anymore because there are so few of them, percentagewise, and it doesn’t mean anything to anybody else. … [T]hirty years ago I used to joke that if you found five people picked at random, three of them knew one another and two of them were ex-lovers. That’s the kind of place it was. You can’t say anything like that now. … How many people in Reno, for example, have been here 10 years? Or five years? And of those, how many of them are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder?”

His questions about the state’s many low-wage jobs is an important one. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says such jobs help drive a growing gap in Nevada between rich and poor: “Inequality has been increasing in Nevada for nearly two decades. … The richest 20 percent of families with children had average incomes eight times as large as the poorest 20 percent. … The richest 20 percent of families with children had average incomes 2.3 times as large as the middle 20 percent. … The average income of the poorest fifth of families fell by $1,410. … The average income of the middle fifth of families fell by $740. … The average income of the richest fifth of families increased by $6,480.” The rate of growth of the gap has leveled off, but the gap remains.

Keep in mind that in any given year, a higher percentage of Nevada’s residents are recent arrivals than in any other state. They don’t know much about the state, know few people and—given the state’s large number of low-wage jobs—may be struggling to get by. Worrying about civic improvement or the high state infectious-disease rate might not be high on their lists of things to do.

Rugged individualism?
Playing into all this is the state’s economic engine, and here is where the casinos come in. In many ways, Nevada’s major industry is not gambling or tourism—it’s preying on human weaknesses. During 140 years, Nevada has made activities legal that were legal nowhere else, from prizefighting to quickie divorce to gambling to prostitution to cancer cures to youth drugs. In doing so, however pioneering the state’s role turned out to be, it was hardly telling new arrivals to be good citizens.

Not only does this attract a certain kind of populace, but some of those I spoke with think it affects the way people think when they get here. Former Nevada Superintendent of Schools Eugene Paslov agrees with Pine’s skepticism toward the “independent West” syndrome and says legal gambling adds a factor: “Sometimes I think it has to do with our gambling attitude or our attitude toward gambling. … It’s that Western, independent, low taxes, leave us alone—and if you do that for enough years, the kinds of tax revenues that you need to support a better quality of life, better schools, better parks, better hospitals and better everything never quite make it.”

Paslov’s view matches one of Elmer Rusco’s theories. In Rusco’s 1980 article, he offered several hypotheses for why Nevada has become the way it is. Here are two of them: “Gambling encourages an extreme form of individualism, in which people recognize few ties to other persons and therefore few obligations to support the needy. … Gambling encourages greater cynicism about the motives of other persons.”

This can sound like an argument that Nevadans don’t care about each other, but it’s a subtler point than that: There is a difference between caring about the Nevadan at the next desk and caring about Nevadans in the abstract. The state’s economic and social structure gives residents very little reason to care about the faceless mass of Nevadans. Some politicians have enhanced their careers by being against welfare recipients, even though Nevada is so strict on welfare that the caseload is tiny. By demonizing these exceptions, politicians keep our eyes off the appalling rules.

It can be argued that some people, influenced by the state’s reputation, move to Nevada in order not to have a stake in the community. When Paslov was school superintendent, he saw opinion surveys that validated the often rumored reluctance of senior citizens to support school bond issues. Nevada is a magnet for senior citizens from the rust belt.

Nevada has a statistically high income level—$21,580 in the 2000 census—which is deceptive and harmful. The state is a tax residence for a lot of millionaires, and that skews the average. (Other small Western states: New Mexico, $17,067; Utah, $17,664; Wyoming, $19,336.) As a result, the poor—little noticed in any state—become particularly invisible in Nevada. The harm comes when figures about the state’s average income (inflated by tax residents) cost the state funds for social programs. Congress and cabinet departments are more likely to send money to Louisiana, where the income level is low, than to Nevada, even though the two states’ social problems have striking similarities and often rank near each other.

Nevada has high rates of various medical maladies, and low rates of health insurance to provide treatment for them.

Photo By David Robert

It’s useful here to note that Rusco suggested that one of the reasons the working poor are invisible in Nevada is because no one in the state is willing to speak for them: “Nevada’s political parties do not emphasize class-based issues, [which] explains why low-income groups do not have their interests well represented, because high-income groups dominate political systems in which class differences are not an overt element.”

It’s money that matters
There is a point of view that says, “You can’t solve problems by throwing money at them.” Building insulation worker Danny Thompson, who served in the Nevada Legislature for 10 years and is now a union leader, says, “Listen, I agree with that to some extent. I mean, just putting the money in a program and not having a program isn’t going to solve anything. … You have to really have a plan to deal with those problems, and the second you find that there’s not a plan to deal with them, you’re going to have bad results.”

He says in Nevada there are areas of first-rate planning but also areas where planning is entirely inadequate or reactive.

Pine agrees, saying that while she doesn’t think all of Nevada’s social maladies can be helped by government programs, some of them can be.

“But I know that the Legislature has been very stingy with social services,” she says. “The poor people who need the help the most aren’t getting it. … I don’t know if putting more money into those social services would impact some of those statistics. [But] putting more money into childhood immunizations would. … Putting some more laws into effect that say you have to keep the air clean might have an effect.”

Besides, saying that money won’t solve problems is contrary to Nevada’s experience. For instance, in the 1990s, state government started a program of public awareness and education to try to bring down the teen-pregnancy rate. It worked. The rate has declined steadily. Because money was spent, there are fewer unwanted infants and more teens living normal adolescent lives, and those teens are using fewer public programs.

Or there’s the mental-health problem. The state has never done much in this area, but it had slowly expanded its slight programs until Gov. Robert Miller’s administration. In a recession, Miller went after mental-health programs so fiercely even conservative lawmakers were taken aback. In subsequent legislatures, they started rebuilding the program, exceeding Miller’s budget recommendations.

Former University of Nevada, Reno political scientist Richard Siegel says, “Ever since Bob Miller in the ‘91 session savaged the mental-health budget … the Legislature has been surprisingly good to mental health.” Gov. Kenny Guinn has supported those efforts.

It worked. The state is showing substantive progress. Some vulnerable and unhappy Nevadans are living healthier lives and using fewer public programs because money was spent.

Sometimes people from outside can see things that natives can’t. I tracked down Kurt Bouchard at a conference in Washington, D.C. He’s a University of Nebraska scholar who wrote The Word on the Street, a book on homelessness in Las Vegas. He suggested taking a look at Las Vegas’s famous “What happens here, stays here” advertising campaign. Bouchard said that the slogan is a powerful message that unacceptable behavior is welcome in Nevada. And Bouchard gave it to me in the rawest terms.

In most states, the percent of traffic deaths that are alcohol-related is in the 30s or 40s. In Nevada, it’s 50 percent.

Photo By David Robert

“But what interests me about that is the construction of Las Vegas as almost like—it’s a place where you can do things that you either shouldn’t do elsewhere, but almost certainly shouldn’t talk about elsewhere. … You could argue it’s akin to a toilet, in that you go to a toilet to do a bad thing or something that is not culturally acceptable—but [it] then goes away. You don’t deal with it anymore; it’s flushed away, and that’s the end.”

This was interesting. In a state whose residents put “Nevada is not a wasteland” bumper strips on their cars to keep bad things out, the leaders are using an advertising slogan to invite outsiders to come and do things not welcome elsewhere. What kind of a message is that giving people who are lured into moving to Nevada? Is it possible that this successful slogan, like so much of our state promotion, gives us some short-term commerce while deepening our long-term problems?

What Las Vegas is doing with a five-word slogan, of course, is just what it and other Nevada communities and the state have been doing in other forms for decades. This isn’t a north-versus-south issue—every part of the state has done it. The state has defined itself as a sandbox—small wonder there are people who want to use it as one. Can any state act like the island of donkey boys and not create problems for itself?

Pulling out of the mire
This article was intended to try to find some reasons for a problem, not solve the problem. But as I gathered information, Janice Pine and Danny Thompson kept coming to mind. They were both former public officials—Pine a member of the Reno City Council, Thompson a state legislator. Pine is a conservative Republican, Thompson a liberal Democrat. Thompson is from Clark County, Pine from Washoe. But there are overlaps in their viewpoints and neither of them takes predictable stands—Thompson doesn’t see public funding as an answer to everything, Pine doesn’t object to some government programs as an answer to some things. There is a middle ground here on which a stand can be taken.

Whether it can prevail in today’s polarized politics is doubtful. Besides, how many Nevada politicians would resist the temptation to “defend” the state from “attacks” on it like all those state-by-state rankings, thus short-circuiting any attempts at solutions?

On the other hand, Nevada is changing, and the change is slowly being reflected in politics. There is substantial evidence that the tremendous influx of new residents and the urbanization of the state means Nevada is becoming more like other states in its residents’ attitudes. And it is no longer possible to say that governor and Legislature are obstacles to solving Nevada’s deep quality-of-life deficit.

Paslov says, “You know, Nevada, when I arrived here 20 years ago, had one kind of mentality, that strong Western independence, but also, ‘Let’s not spend money on government.’ And today, if you just look at the last [legislative] session, there was a greater willingness, still some reluctance, but a greater willingness to put money into some social welfare, child benefits, schools—things were better. Yes, the trend is improving.”

Bouchard even suggests the state’s economy may be becoming less oriented to tourism and exploitation, citing a book by University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Hal Rothman: “He talks about how shopping is overtaking gambling in [Las Vegas]” … that shopping is becoming more income generating than gambling, which indicates perhaps a very important cultural shift.”

It does seem to me that one of the reasons policy making has often been left to the doctrinaire is that there are good people capable of contributing to this debate who have been out of the flow of things and ignored by those of us in journalism. I suspect that we have not reached out for the range of views we should have. It’s easier to grab a Republican officeholder and Democratic officeholder, or do a “real person” story with no context—and that’s when we bother to cover the depth of Nevada’s problems at all.

It’s striking that all of those I spoke with, left and right, are uneasy with Nevada’s quality-of-life crisis and that all of them rejected the kind of laissez-faire, hands-off response that some politicians advocate. The views of Janice Pine, Danny Thompson, Bernard Schopen, Eugene Paslov and others who are troubled by Nevada’s problems may not be accepted, but they can’t all be disloyal Nevadans—particularly since they love this state.

OK, let the letters to the editor begin. I’m planning to return to this subject in a year or so, and letters will help.