Women at the summit

Nevada’s lousy quality of life gets a good hard look

Panelists Alicia Smalley, Teresa Benitez and Jill Winter talk about the difficulties facing Nevada’s working poor.

Panelists Alicia Smalley, Teresa Benitez and Jill Winter talk about the difficulties facing Nevada’s working poor.

Photo By Dennis Myers

More than 200 women (and a number of men) from around Nevada gathered for the Nevada Women’s Summit in Las Vegas last weekend to talk about family and children’s issues. They tended to avoid the politically chic issues in favor of more down-to-earth concerns.

The summit was sponsored by the Nevada Women’s Lobby (NWL), an alliance of three dozen groups such as the Nevada Nurses Association and Business and Professional Women.

The delegates seemed acutely conscious of Nevada’s longtime low rankings in quality-of-life indexes, something other Nevada groups try their best to forget. The state ranks at the wrong end of national rankings of teen pregnancy, alcohol-related deaths, health insurance coverage, children in jail, infectious disease, homicide against women, dropout rates, crime of all types and many other fields. The consequences fall hard on families, and many of the delegates passed up workshops on church and state, war and violence, and gay and transgender issues for education and health care panels.

The most heavily attended workshop dealt with the working poor. A summary of findings in a study by Susan Chandler and Alicia Smalley, “Working Hard/Living Poor” ("Working man’s blues,” RN&R, Dec. 26, 2002), jolted many of the participants. Smalley, one of the panelists, said Nevada experiences a high rate of people having to work two jobs.

Jill Winter, of Reno’s Center for Applied Research, says Nevada’s statistical prosperity—high average income and low unemployment—can be misleading.

In other states, these indexes normally correlate with good quality-of-life factors, but in Nevada, high income and low unemployment live side by side with some of the nation’s worst quality-of-life measures.

“In part, this is because we have these polar opposites,” Winter said. The state’s people live at economic extremes more than do those in other states. There is an unusually high number of people with high incomes and an unusually high number of people in dire straits.

Winter said Nevada’s economy is plagued by low-paying jobs, which forces parents out of the home, often into two jobs. “The jobs in this state do not pay a living wage. …With only one adult wage earner in the household, you are really in trouble.”

Nevada Empowered Women’s Project founder and former director Teresa Benitez, now an aide to the governor of Michigan, says one of the big obstacles to doing something concrete about poverty is the view that it is “a lifestyle choice” by low-income people, even though most of the poor live lives of grueling labor, sometimes working multiple jobs.

“People want to believe that people are out of work by choice, that there is some moral defect,” she said. “Poverty is not a moral defect. It’s a consequence of the economy, of structures and systems.”

A National League of Cities study shows Nevada with a high rate of working people below the poverty line, yet Winter’s point about the state’s polarized economy skewing the statistics comes into play here—on paper, only 6.8 percent of Nevada’s families are in poverty, compared with a national average of 9.6 percent. Some delegates expressed exasperation that statistics could conceal the depth of poverty.

Benitez said that, as the gap between the wealthy and middle class widens, poverty is reaching progressively deeper into what used to be the middle class. “More often than not, the face of the working poor is the person sitting next to you,” she said.

The summit was also an opportunity for leaders of groups all over Nevada to interact and plan for the upcoming elections and the subsequent session of the Nevada Legislature. The organizations allied through the NWL had a big stake in the outcome of the 2003 Legislature, and dozens of their members made trips to Carson City last year to help lobby in favor of Gov. Kenny Guinn’s legislative program, which substantially increased funding for family and children’s programs.

The summit was a hotbed of opposition to George Bush, described by one speaker flatly as “anti-women” for his “onslaught against women and children.”

But the gathering was also a hotbed of support for Bush’s most prominent Nevada supporter, Gov. Guinn. Delegates like Vicki LoSasso, of Reno, acknowledged the anomaly by shrugging their shoulders. “The governor has done his job here in Nevada very well,” she said, then quipped, “We would like to talk to him about Bush, though.”

At a luncheon, LoSasso presented an award to the governor for championing family issues and to his wife Dema for her work on breast cancer awareness and testing.

Many of the discussion leaders expressed the hope that Guinn’s 2003 program, as it takes hold and its impact is felt, will lift Nevada from the bottom of those quality-of-life rankings like children’s health, suicide and prenatal care.

In one sense, the emphasis on family is paradoxical—Nevada is the least family-oriented state in the nation, according to the Census Bureau. A smaller percentage of Nevada households than in any other state include the family configuration associated with situation comedies.

Nevada’s model tends to be closer to The Andy Griffith Show (father, son, and maiden aunt) than Father Knows Best (father, mother, and three children). One web page has declared Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid the senator of singles. This increases the challenge of making federally mandated one-size-fits-all programs fit the state.

Delegates to the summit engaged in some self-scrutiny, as when they held a floor discussion on what was described as the “I’m-a-feminist-but Problem.” While opinion surveys show that wide segments of the population embrace feminist issues, many of them also avoid calling themselves feminists.

Las Vegas marketing executive Joan Michelson set off a charged discussion by suggesting that if the term is tainted, why not stop using it? For her trouble, she heard a half-dozen delegates denounce the idea.

Clark County Assemblymember Peggy Pierce argued that those who oppose programs for families and children are not likely to change their minds because of a change in terminology.

Not all business at the summit was solemn. One floor session was interrupted for an announcement of UNR’s Sweet 16 victory in the Gonzaga game, which provoked wild cheers followed by discussions of which UNR players would be most likely to be lured away to other teams.

The summit was filled with networking, businesspeople connecting and exchanging business cards and discussing how to fold their policy concerns into their business lives. Displays set up by business and lobby groups provided additional outlets for political action and business activity. In addition, some candidates attended to seek support and recruit volunteers. One candidate heard a rumor of a possible challenge to her candidacy by one of the delegates to the summit and took the opportunity right then to contact her potential opponent and learn if the challenge was serious.

The event was addressed by two governors (one of them, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, is frequently mentioned as a Democratic running mate for John Kerry), a California member of Congress and leaders of a wide variety of groups around Nevada, yet attracted no coverage by daily-journalism entities. Television stations in Las Vegas ignored the event, as did the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Las Vegas Sun, and the local bureau of the Associated Press (which would normally provide whatever coverage of the summit that appears in newspapers elsewhere in the state). Only the Las Vegas newspaper City Life sent a reporter.

UNR journalism professor Jake Highton said, "It just seems to me one of the problems in our society is that we don’t have any in-depth coverage on the things that concern us directly. This is so typical of what is going on in this state, probably most states, and this is why the public is so grossly misinformed and has trouble seeing through the PR and the spin. I’m not surprised, though, because the public-affairs coverage in this state is negligible."