For decades, Las Vegas symbolised the American dream. But the economic crisis has hit hard. Today's recession has left Americans and foreign visitors with less cash to spend in the casinos. The glitz has given way to unemployment, uncertainty and evictions. Once Nevada’s leading source of tourism, Las Vegas is now dragging the entire state down.
Beaming with smiles beneath bright sunshine, tourists queue up to have their photo taken in front of the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. No one notices the tunnel a little to their left. It is the entrance to a labyrinth of storm drains that criss-cross Sin City, beneath the neon light, where some 300 people have set up makeshift homes. Many of them are victims of the economic crisis.
Cindy and Rick have been camping out in the tunnels for over a year and a half now. Their home is regularly flooded, but Cindy still tries to separate their part of the tunnel into separate spaces. Pointing to wooden slats with a thin blanket, she indicates their guest bedroom. The kitchen consists of a stack of plastic bags with food and cutlery wrapped up. When it rains, the tunnel can fill up with more than 12 inches of water a minute. A few weeks ago, Cindy’s ID was washed away in the floods, so currently she cannot even apply for jobs. Rick manages to pick up some odd jobs working as a mechanic, but nothing stable enough to get their heads back above water.
The downward spiral unravels quickly. Within weeks of missing rent, people find themselves on the street. Dozens of people are being evicted every day; last year alone, some 3,600 households faced eviction.
The Week in the Americas: election special
Cristina is a hairdresser who moved to Las Vegas 18 years ago for a better life. She saw it as the heart of the American dream, the money-making capital. Until recently, her expectations had been met. But with the downturn, her clients have become fewer, her income has dropped by over 50% and at 52 years of age she finds herself being kicked out of her home. Cristina voted for Barack Obama in the last presidential election, but she is changing her vote this year and opting for Mitt Romney in the hope that he can turn the economy around.
The winds of recession were already blowing before the elections of 2008, but the full force of the economic downturn struck the state in the four years since Barack Obama took office. Despite this, the commander-in-chief is not being held responsible by the majority of the newly unemployed.
At a job fair in Las Vegas, most of the jobseekers we met said they felt the crisis had been a long time in the making. Even if they were down to their final few dollars and feared that very soon they would be living on the streets, many saw the advantage of extending Obama’s mandate rather than voting for change yet again. Similarly, those who backed Romney admitted that the current state of the economy could not be entirely blamed on Obama.
Blood for money
The state of Nevada has the highest rate of unemployment in the US and the highest rate of foreclosures. The level of jobseekers there jumped from 4% in 2007 to a historic high of 14% in 2010. It’s currently just below 12%.
The financial crisis hit everywhere hard, but with an economy built on leisure, Las Vegas suffered more than most. A drop in income meant fewer people visiting, and those that still came let less of their hard-earned cash slip through the slot machines. As a result, the income of the vast majority took a hit.
Teresa Edwards has been looking for a job for a year. She has tried a variety of avenues but the only steady income she has been able to find is selling the plasma in her blood. She donates twice a week, bringing in enough to pay for her internet and some petrol. Were it not for the fact that she can live rent-free at her parents’ home, she says she too would be looking for shelter on the streets.
For decades, Sin City was seen as the epicentre of the American dream, the place to make one’s fortune. But Lady Luck has left.