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“We basically ended up living in our car”
Corin Kealoha and Shaun Karagory both work full time – but cannot afford food without the help of a food bank.”We can’t even live off our wages,” says Corin, 46, who works as a hotel receptionist. “That’s why we come here.”The couple are at St Vincent’s Food Pantry, in Reno, Nevada, where they have picked up cardboard boxes containing cereals, bread, milk, peanut butter, and some meat. And their story offers a glimpse into the complicated reality behind the economic recovery lauded by President Donald Trump.In his January State of the Union, President Trump hailed the “great American comeback”, stating: “Jobs are booming. Incomes are soaring. Poverty is plummeting… the years of economic decay are over.” It’s a narrative he hopes will help him win November’s presidential race – including in Nevada, a swing state that supported Hillary Clinton by a margin of just 2% in 2016. The western state, home to Las Vegas, was one of the worst hit by the 2008 financial crisis. House prices dropped up to 60%, unemployment soared to 14%, and the state had the highest number of home foreclosures nationwide.More than a decade on, Nevada’s home values have recovered, the state came first for job growth in the US in 2018, and unemployment now hovers at a 20-year low of 3.8%. But to get a sense of some of the limits of the recovery, you only have to take a walk in downtown Reno. Down North Virginia Street, there are glittery high-rise hotels and casinos, river walkways, and tourists taking selfies at the iconic Reno Arch, which proudly welcomes visitors to “the biggest little city in the world”.
Yet if you take a different turn, and walk down East Fourth Street, the city looks very different. Instead of high-rises, there are smaller, weekly motels, and instead of tourists, you can see queues outside shelters and soup kitchens, and homeless people sitting, chatting, or doing push-ups near the railway tracks.”Unemployment is low, but unfortunately unemployment is not a great indicator of how many people are hungry,” says Jocelyn Lantrip, from the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, which supplies charities, including St Vincent’s Food Pantry.And often, those going hungry – or temporarily homeless – are people who already have jobs.”We have anything from 350 to 450 new families per month,” says Carlos Carrillo, programme director at the St Vincent’s food pantry, in between packing boxes with food. “We used to have a lot of clients who were unemployed or on social security, but nowadays most of our clients are working families.”The food bank has even started offering dog and cat food to 1,500 families a month – a practical step after they realised that clients would often go hungry in order to feed their pets.A majority of clients say they are forced to use the food bank because rents have soared. “They take money out of their food budget to pay for rent, so that’s where we come in, to provide a bit of the food that they’re not buying anymore,” Mr Carrillo says.
Carlos says St Vincent’s Food Pantry serves about 300 families in Reno each day
Elliott Parker, chair of economics at the University of Nevada, Reno, argues that “recovery is in the eye of the beholder”.The latest data from the Census Bureau suggests that median household income is still just below 2008 levels, he adds.”We are finally at the end of a very long recovery – but wages have risen nowhere near as fast as housing and rental prices.” Nevada has the nation’s worst shortage of affordable housing for low-income families, according to an advocacy group, only 19 homes for every 100 low-income renter households. There are various reasons for the house prices – including stalled construction from the 2008 financial crisis that has been slow to pick up.And Reno residents complain about the “Tesla effect” – as tech workers and retirees from the more expensive neighbouring state of California cross the border into Nevada, they push up rental prices for locals.”Fifty percent of people in Nevada rent, and half of them are rent burdened – meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing,” says state Senator Julia Ratti, whose district covers the Reno-Sparks area. “This means they become very vulnerable to anything happening in their life – if you get a flat tyre, or your child needs medical care, you’ll be late on your rent.”
“Rent has jumped so dramatically you can’t even stay on your two feet,” says Corin
It’s something Corin and Shaun, 39, experienced last year, after Shaun, who works as a security guard, developed fibromyalgia and had to take some time off work.”We became homeless because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent,” says Corin. “We basically ended up living in our car.”They have since moved into a studio apartment – although the rent, which is $900 a month, takes a significant bite out of their wages – they both earn $10 per hour.”We’re not stable yet – we’re not even sure what’s going to happen,” Corin says with a laugh. “We just live day by day for now.” John Restrepo, an analyst at RCG Economics in Las Vegas, says it is both true that the economy overall has grown – and that many working families are still suffering.Those with equities in the stock market and small businesses have come out as winners from the economic recovery, he says, but wage earners have lost out.
Las Vegas is experiencing record unemployment
“About 60% of our households are not invested in the stock market – they depend on wages – and a large percentage of those folks, particularly lower-income workers, haven’t benefited from the recovery at all,” says Mr Restrepo. “The challenge is that wages have been pretty stagnant after you adjust for inflation.”He believes that many companies, “as a result of the great recession, decided to do business differently” – hiring more contractors and gig workers.Nevada was also coming out of a particularly deep recession, which means “we’ve been growing for 10 years now, but it’s also one of the slowest recoveries in terms of the rate of recovery”.Th