Las Vegas Review-Journal, March 9, 2008: The Faces of Poverty: Life on the Bottom Rung
BY COREY LEVITAN
The nightly post-dinner Scrabble tournament is heating up in the house Carole and John Hicks share with their six kids. Two boards are out, four family members crowding each.
In the kitchen game, reigning champ Alexis, 16, is ahead of her mother but staring at nothing but consonant tiles. Desperate measures are called for.
“Stop looking, Lexi!” Carole Hicks warns.
With kids everywhere so addicted to cable, video games and the Internet, a family having fun through personal interaction is refreshing.
But there is no cable TV in this house, nor are there video games. And the only Internet comes through a phone line kept free for incoming calls. It was just installed and has already been discovered by bill collectors.
Without Walker Furniture, the Hicks would be spending the night in sleeping bags. The locally owned and operated retail furniture store donated one queen and three bunk beds as part of its annual Home For the Holidays program at Christmas.
The Hickses were among the approximately 100,000 Las Vegas families living at or below the poverty line in 2007, according to figures provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, which set the most recent threshold at $20,444 for a family of four.
“It’s rough,” says John Hicks, 41. “It’s a rough time.”
In 2006, the family lived in a five-bedroom house in Provo, Utah. John earned $38,000 a year setting foundations and footings.
“We had everything,” he says. “We used to go camping on weekends, and we used to go to the movies.”
Today, in addition to food stamps, the family’s only income is $1,300 a month in welfare. It covers the $1,000 rent but only a fraction of the utilities.
“My power bill is $420 a month,” Carole Hicks says, “and we don’t know how we’re gonna pay it.”
Being poor is grueling, especially in Las Vegas.
“The poor are more on their own here,” says University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor Tom Carroll, who teaches a class called The Economics of Inequality, Poverty and Discrimination.
“The problem is that we have such a weak safety net: lack of child care and social services, and the problems with the health care system,” Carroll says. “So I think it takes them longer to dig their way out.”
The Hickses’ spiral toward poverty began about a year ago, when John’s nephew phoned to tell him that the brick company he worked for in Las Vegas was hiring.
“I got here, but the house we were supposed to be in wasn’t ready,” John Hicks says. “So I had to still move all my stuff and everything, which took another five days.”
The job was filled within four days. John’s nephew was laid off not long thereafter. Then, John discovered bedbugs infesting the house into which he had moved his family.
“We had to leave everything,” Carole Hicks recalls. “I have this outfit and one other outfit, and my kids are pretty much the same way.”
The family finds itself stuck in what it thought was a land of opportunity.
“I’ve been putting in job applications left and right,” John Hicks says. “But there’s, like, a thousand people vying for each job.”
John has a wealth of construction experience.
“But I’m not certified in any of it,” he says. “And in order to get certified, you have to have money to go to school. I need a certificate to lube in Las Vegas — just to put oil in a car.”
In addition, John’s job search has been hampered by his own broken car.
“It needs about $400 of work,” he says. “But then I need insurance, and that’s hard to do when you’re barely making it.”
Carroll estimates that 10 percent of Las Vegans not currently considered poor are one paycheck away from a similar reality.
“A crisis — like losing a job or a kid getting sick — will push them below the threshold,” he says.
Catholic Charities already is seeing the change. Spokeswoman Sharon Mann estimates that 5 percent to 10 percent of the people seeking help come from middle-class families with two working parents.
“We used to have people only coming on foot and by bus,” she notes. “Now people are coming by car from Henderson, Green Valley and Summerlin.”
‘IT BOTHERS ME AND HURTS ME’
A remote-control helicopter buzzes above the World of Toys kiosk.
“I want one!” 11-year-old Tom Sorenson calls out.
Salesman Golan Shemesh announces the price to Tom’s mother.
“Just $80,” he says.
The whirring toy takes a sudden dip back to the ground, paralleling the young boy’s hopes.
“Next time,” Laurie Sorenson tells her son.
This is what she always says. Window shopping is the only shopping the family — Laurie and her boyfriend, George Holley; their son, Tom Holley; Tom’s pregnant 16-year-old sister, Brittany Sorenson; and her fiance, Tyler Laszlo — can afford to do at the Galleria at Sunset mall. One afternoon every weekend, the 115A bus delivers them to their weekly communal entertainment outing.
“It bothers me and hurts me — not having the funds to do better for my children,” says Laurie, a 37-year-old native of Santa Maria, Calif., who suffers from diabetes and an enlarged heart. She is disabled and does not work. The same is true of George Holley, 55, a retired tire store cashier from Kingman, Ariz. He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, second-stage emphysema and congestive heart failure.
Medical Assistance for the Aged, Blind and Disabled — provided through Nevada’s welfare office — pays for their medications. But the family’s sole income is $1,800 a month from Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, which leaves $100 a month for everything else, including food, after the $1,100 in rent for their three-bedroom apartment and $600 in utility and phone bills.
“There have been times that I’ve gotten desperate enough to where I considered lowering myself to be a prostitute, just so I could provide for my kids,” Laurie says. “I’ve tried going to all these agencies, and none of them can offer me assistance.”
Laurie says she tried applying for food stamps but was denied because she does not have her family’s birth certificates.
Nancy McLane, director of Clark County Social Services, admits that her agency is overburdened and underfunded.
“Generally speaking, the quantity and availability of services is very limited here, and many of the services have waiting lists,” she says.
She blames the problem mostly on a lack of government funding.
“But part of the problem is that our nonprofit community is fairly small, given the size of the city,” she says. “Some of that, I think, is because we are a boomtown and have always been that way. So sometimes there’s not that sense of community that I think drives those kinds of services to grow.
“And I think because we have a high transient population, that probably contributes to it as well.”
Estella Cazarea, 40, reaches for a package of bone-in chuck steak. It will make a delicious base for a Mexican stew called posole.
“The last time we had posole was Christmas,” says 19-year-old Jose, one of the six children with whom Estella and her husband share a three-bedroom east-side apartment.
Three or four times a week, Estella prepares soup with whatever random meat she can find on special at King Ranch Market on Desert Inn Road. The smell of posole filling their tiny kitchen is a welcome change.
Estella retracts her empty hand when she reads the price tag: $1.94 per pound.
Jose waits until his mother walks out of earshot to explain.
“She doesn’t want you to see her have to put it back later,” he says. “She’s too proud.”
Frequently, the Cazareas are forced to decide what’s important once the register shows more than their weekly food budget of $80.
“Sometimes, we want to buy things that we can’t afford,” Jose says. Estella says that her husband, Juan, earns too much money as a maintenance worker to qualify the family for food stamps.
Estella tosses two packages of pork neck bones into the cart instead, at $1.19 per pound. Random-meat soup will have to do again.
Since 1986, when statistics for Las Vegas were first compiled, the city has had an average poverty rate of 11.4 percent. That’s 1.9 percent lower than the national average of 13.3 percent during the same period, according to the Current Population Survey, a random sample of 60,000 households conducted monthly by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We have more service jobs where you can earn just a little more than the poverty rate,” Carroll says. “Somebody who serves food in a cafeteria for a living is going to get $6 in Cincinnati and $10 in Las Vegas.”
However, the poverty rate in Las Vegas is volatile, frequently darting above and below the national figure. Carroll compares the United States to a snake gradually changing course. He compares Las Vegas to “a patient having a heart attack.”
In the short term, Las Vegas has caught up with the current national poverty rate of 12 percent.
“And, if we keep the same trend up, we’ll be above the national average in 2008,” Carroll says, blaming the current situation on the subprime mortgage meltdown that has caused Las Vegas to lead the nation in home foreclosures.
“Once people can no longer take money out of their homes, they cut back on their spending,” Carroll says. “They don’t go to the casino. And employers hire people based on how productive they think they’re gonna be.
“So people who have those poverty-level jobs are losing them.”
FAMILY SPLIT UP IN SHELTER
Darrell Redmond has finished the day’s last loop. Nine times already, he has driven his boss’s mobile billboard south on Maryland Parkway, west on Tropicana Avenue and north on Las Vegas Boulevard back to Sahara Avenue.
“What hurts me is that I’m 44 now,” Redmond says. “When I was 18, I was getting five bucks an hour, and I’m still five- and six-bucking it.”
Redmond parks the truck outside The Salvation Army and begins what he wishes wasn’t his walk home. Once again, Redmond and his 12-year-old son, Ace, will sleep in two single beds in one crowded building at the Christian homeless shelter. His wife, Vanessa, and their 5-year-old daughter, Delylah, will sleep in a single twin bed in another.
“Hopefully, they’ve eaten already,” Darrell says. Vanessa has a token.
When they don’t like what’s being served for free, residents can buy a $2 breakfast token or a $2.50 lunch token.
Once or twice, Redmond tried bringing home one of the white boxes he Dumpster-dives for.
“But how do you come in with a pizza and you’ve got nine other families there with kids that haven’t eaten?” he asks. “You just can’t. Everybody comes up and says, ‘Hey, can I get this slice?’ It’s hard to say no.”
Redmond cuts a path through a forest of unfortunate souls in the courtyard. Some of their eyes appear glazed over by apathy, others by chemicals. He enters the residence. Two minutes later, he exits, a young girl in donated clothes and shoes twirling happily around his legs.
“Vanessa’s waiting for me to do something to get us out of this,” Redmond says, “but that doesn’t seem to happen.”
According to Carroll, there might be a reason.
“For all of the economic growth Las Vegas has had, one in 10 are still poor today, just like one in 10 were poor in 1986,” the professor says. “And, over the last seven years, almost all economic growth has gone to the upper-income bracket. People below the top 20 percent really haven’t seen any benefit.”
Carroll blames a combination of tax cuts, deregulation and a lack of services. And he says he fears the effects that Gov. Jim Gibbons’ proposed 4.5 percent tax cuts could have on families such as the Hicks, Cazareas and Redmonds, and the one headed by Laurie Sorenson and her boyfriend, George Holley.
“Those are gonna be pulled out of services for the poor,” he said. “We’re not gonna cut prison guards. We’re gonna cut homeless shelters, social workers, all those things that would ordinarily help the poor.
“And even more people are gonna be on their own.”
‘NOTHING TO COMPLAIN ABOUT’
It is a move expected by no one at the kitchen table. Quintin Hicks, 10, has come out of nowhere to spell “Polaroid” on a triple-scoring square.
The game is his, the balance of Scrabble in the Hicks household perhaps forever tilted.
John Hicks emerges from the living-room game, staring proudly at his son.
“When you think about it, we’ve got nothing to complain about, really,” he says. “We’ve got food, we’ve got power, we’ve got each other.
“We’re making it, I think.”
Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan @reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0456.