Nevada Shines Light Onto America's Future

Rocked by heavy immigration and demographic change, Nevada must retool its government to cope with the new reality. It’s a sign of things to come in the rest of the country.
by | October 2015

For years, the Day of the Dead in Las Vegas came and went without most people noticing. The Mexican holiday provides an occasion to honor and pray for departed loved ones, but despite rapid growth in Southern Nevada’s Hispanic population, there was no local commemoration. A few individuals went privately to cemeteries and left flowers or set up altars filled with offerings, or ofrendas, but that was about it.

Then a woman working for the state arts council persuaded a Catholic church to host a more formal event. It quickly outgrew the space and moved to Clark County’s cultural center, which is housed in an old elementary school. Now the celebration draws 9,000 people annually over the first two nights of November. “That is the biggest event we do each year,” says Patrick Gaffey, cultural program supervisor for the Clark County Parks and Recreation Department. “People come here and they bring their traditions.”

There are lots of cultural traditions to commemorate in Clark County, and the number gets larger all the time. The center hosts everything from Chinese language summer camps to concerts featuring African, Arabic and Hawaiian musicians. The calendar of events reflects the enormous demographic changes that have come to Nevada in a relatively short time. Over the past 20 years, the number of Hispanics in the state has more than doubled. Hispanics and Asians are expected to make up half the population of Las Vegas within the next few years. (Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, has more than 2 million residents and accounts for three-quarters of the population of the entire state.)

It used to be neighboring California foreshadowing the ways in which the nation as a whole was heading. Now it’s Nevada that, perhaps more than any other state, offers a glimpse into the future. The change that has occurred so rapidly there -- from having a population that was overwhelmingly white to one that will soon be mostly people of color -- is under way in most of the nation, or will be in the coming decades. The Census Bureau has predicted the country as a whole will be majority nonwhite by the year 2043.

The “diversity explosion,” as Brookings Institution demographer William Frey calls it, is most pronounced among the young. Already, a majority of K-12 students across the nation belong to minority groups. According to Frey, since 2000 all but four states have actually seen a decline in their population of whites under 20, while all but two states have experienced growth among young people of color. “The continued dispersion of Latinos and Asians into Las Vegas and Nevada is emblematic of what’s happening everywhere,” Frey says.

You don’t have to embrace diversity to recognize that it’s coming. In this sense, Nevada might serve as a warning. Although Hispanics have accounted for nearly half the state’s growth in recent years, in terms of policy response, they have remained mostly an afterthought. Few government programs have evolved in order to serve a more diverse population. When it comes to social services and education, in particular, Nevada is still catching up. “There’s no doubt we’re behind,” says Dale Erquiaga, the state superintendent of public instruction.

Things are starting to change, but not quickly enough to help many of the new residents succeed. By nearly any measure you can think of -- unemployment, high school graduation rates, use of food stamps -- Hispanics aren’t faring as well as Caucasians in Nevada. They also lag behind Hispanics in other Mountain West states, according to a study published last year by the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities. And, in contrast to the common stereotype, a good share of Nevada’s fast-growing Asian population is struggling as well. “Our [service] infrastructure was so poor,” says Nancy Brune, the center’s executive director. “We were starting at the bottom and you add these demographic pressures, it’s not surprising the outcome is what it is.”

Back in 1950, when Nevada was the nation’s least populous state, it was practically all white. Twenty-five years ago, non-Hispanic whites still made up 70 percent of the Las Vegas population. Now, they’re down to 45 percent. Whites are still the single largest group within the city, but many of the county’s white residents are in sprawling suburbs such as Henderson, where they constitute three-quarters of the population of 270,000.

Although Latinos are the largest immigrant cohort, Asians and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing group. They have settled throughout the area, but many Asian-owned businesses are concentrated along Spring Mountain Road, west of the casino-lined Las Vegas Strip. There’s been considerable Chinese investment in local real estate, and Hawaiians sometimes refer to Vegas as “the ninth island,” due to their proclivity to vacation and move there. But the dominant group among Asians is Filipinos. They make up more than half of Clark County’s Asian population; ballots in the county are now printed in Tagalog, the Filipino language, as well as English and Spanish.

Many of the Asians in Las Vegas have entrepreneurial aspirations. This summer, for example, Raymart Bayanin moved from the Philippines to Vegas to study hospitality management at the College of Southern Nevada, one of the nation’s largest community colleges. “If I will be a rich man, I have to have a business,” he says.

That type of ambition has brought people to Nevada for generations. People have always believed they could strike it rich there, with old money and institutional ties mattering far less than in most places. The go-west ethos attracted both high rollers and poor people looking for a fresh start. Work in the mines and in unionized resorts, along with cheap housing costs, gave many new residents the chance to live a white-collar lifestyle on a blue-collar salary. “Regardless of your background, you get a chance here,” says Betsy Fretwell, Las Vegas’ city manager. “That’s helped not only minorities, but everyone.”

In the 1950s, African-Americans moved to Vegas to escape the cotton fields of the South. Now many of the menial jobs they once held in hotels -- as well as many of their former homes in the historically black section of West Las Vegas -- have been taken over by Hispanics. (African-Americans today make up 11 percent of Clark County’s population.) West Las Vegas still has businesses with names like Soul Brothers and Beulah’s Kitchen and Community Pantry, but it’s become predominantly Hispanic. “It’s hard to wrap your head around 89106 being anything but the black community,” says Lawrence Weekly, who is African-American and the only nonwhite serving on the county commission. Hispanics also dominate the east side of town, and much of the eastern valley. Many have roots in the Caribbean or Central America, particularly El Salvador and Guatemala. But the majority either arrived directly from Mexico or have ancestry there.

States are often slow to react to demographic change. That’s certainly the case in Nevada. The legislature meets for only 120 days every other year and has limited time to be visionary. When Republicans took over the legislature last year -- giving the GOP control of all of Nevada’s political branches for the first time since 1929 -- few would have bet they’d spend the next session passing the largest tax increase in history. But that’s what happened. Lawmakers recognized that something had to be done about the state’s school governance laws, which were written for a very different population back in 1950. The legislature embraced most of a blizzard of education bills proposed by GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval. “This session was an adjustment for public education to who we are today,” says Erquiaga, the state schools chief.

The billion-dollar package will modernize the state’s education funding formula and offer new help to schools that serve heavily minority and poor populations. Nevada was one of the last states to devote money specifically to teaching English language learners (ELL) -- the term for children growing up in homes where English is not the primary language. There was no money earmarked for ELL until 2013; this year’s package doubles the amount the state will spend, to $100 million over the two-year budget cycle. “We did a lot of catching up in terms of the resources needed for our population today,” Erquiaga says.

Still, Latino advocates and educational institutions complain that the increased funds, while certainly welcome, are not nearly enough. The state has long ranked near the bottom in terms of equity and per-pupil school spending. In order to have adequate if not excellent ELL programs, they claim, Nevada would have to spend something more like $350 million. Miami has about the same number of ELL students as the Las Vegas area, but spends more than twice as much on such programs. In Clark County, a quarter of the kids are ELL students, but only 5 percent of the teachers are qualified to teach them. Clark County teachers are predominantly white, even as the school population becomes much less so. Given how crowded schools are and how big some class sizes are -- Clark County started the school year some 900 teachers short -- it’s easy for a kid with limited language skills to get lost. “Our education system is just starting to adapt to the changes,” says Seth Rau, policy director for Nevada Succeeds, an education group backed by businesses. “I would argue that our system is just starting to react, 20 years too late.”

One reason policymakers were slow to make adjustments in education, as well as in other program areas, was the sheer speed and volume of population change. The Hispanics who moved to Clark County were part of a huge influx of newly arrived residents of all kinds who came in from California and other states, as well as other countries, in search of year-round sunshine, cheap housing and jobs. There was a boom in casinos that made it easy for people with poor education to find work cleaning rooms and cooking food, and with those people came lots of employment in residential construction.

Through the 1990s and into the first few years of this century, Clark County was consistently the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, and policy attention was focused on growth. When it came to education, the primary question was whether schools could be built fast enough. Contracts were being written that allowed a dozen elementary schools to be built at a time. Far less notice was paid to how the characteristics of students within the schools -- and the population in general -- were changing. “When you’re tripling the number of park acres and going from eight firehouses to 18,” says Fretwell, the city manager, “a lot of attention gets focused on growth and the development needs of the community.”

After that, she notes, the city had to concentrate on slashing its budget some 20 percent. The 2008 economic collapse hit supposedly recession-proof Las Vegas hard. Casinos lost business as most Americans had less money to devote to travel and tourism. The area was also home to several of the nation’s most foreclosure-plagued ZIP codes, drying up construction and real estate, which had been mainstays of the local economy. Between 2003 and 2006, one out of every four Hispanics employed in Nevada worked in construction, according to a recent report from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). As construction and hotel jobs went away, the unemployment rate for Hispanics in the state peaked at 18.6 percent in 2010. “When the economy was rocking and rolling, undocumented immigrants were here, but were adding to the economy,” says Isaac Barron, a city councilman in North Las Vegas. “When the recession hit, they were someone to blame.”

There was an assumption by some that Hispanics would go back to wherever they came from, whether it was California, Cuba or Mexico. That didn’t happen. Thousands felt trapped by underwater mortgages. And it’s not as if there were a lot of other boom areas to go to. Besides, residents who had arrived during the prosperous years had started to put down roots. “Many did expect people to leave,” says Sylvia Lazos, a law professor at UNLV. “They saw a big wave of immigrants and thought it was a migratory population that wouldn’t want to settle.” By now, it’s clear that’s not the case.

If the growing size of the minority population has finally gotten policymakers’ attention, its growing share of the vote has drawn notice as well. As recently as 1994, whites cast more than 90 percent of the ballots in Nevada. Next year, it will be more like 60 percent. It’s probably no coincidence that lawmakers decided to begin funding ELL programs just after Hispanics played a key role in President Obama’s 2012 victory in the state.

Hispanics and Asians have gotten more organized in recent years, but they still lag well behind in political representation. The number of Hispanics who have served on area school boards in recent years can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The first Latinas were elected to the state Assembly just five years ago. Plenty of public officials in Clark County are “firsts” of their ethnicity to serve in such roles in the entire region. “As Hispanics, we’ve only been taken seriously in recent years,” says Barron, one of only a couple of Hispanic officials elected locally in the entire Las Vegas Valley. “The fact that we haven’t had that much impact on day-to-day governance is a problem.”

Clark County agencies and municipalities in the area have gotten more aggressive about hiring bilingual staff. There are various outreach programs, including a standing quarterly meeting between Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and minority groups. The county is directing more of its purchasing power toward minority-owned businesses, while Barron and other elected officials are hoping to see more Hispanics and Asians appointed to the numerous advisory boards in the area, which address issues such as libraries, planning and parking, and also serve as training grounds for the local political class. At the state level, Nevada has taken far less of an anti-immigrant stance than neighboring Arizona, allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver authorization cards. This year, Sandoval signed a bill allowing some undocumented immigrants to teach in the public schools.

The expression you’ll hear time and again from Latino and Asian advocates is that things are starting to move in the right direction, but the area still has a long way to go. While the increased voting and buying power of minority groups is starting to be recognized, the size and extent of the population change really hasn’t sunk in, or at least isn’t being reflected in most policy areas. Federally funded job training programs can target veterans or youth, but not members of racial minorities; there doesn’t seem to be much local improvising on this score. Areas with predominantly Hispanic populations, such as the eastern part of the Las Vegas Valley, are almost entirely lacking in health services such as primary care clinics. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” says Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani. “I would have to say, Hispanics are still vulnerable as a community, as are Asians.”

Las Vegas is still a new city. It has the potential -- like older American cities such as Chicago or New York in prior centuries -- to build upon immigrants as an economic engine. But it will have to do a better job nurturing that human capital. Only 30 percent of Nevadans have had a post-secondary education. In order to diversify its economy, the state will have to raise that percentage substantially, particularly among its minority population. “Company after company after company has stated that because of the low quality of education and our workforce, they wouldn’t come to Nevada,” says Leo Murrieta, executive director of the Center for Latino Prosperity.

This much should be clear about a town built on gambling: Not everyone who comes to Las Vegas wins. Consider the contrasting fortunes of two Hispanic women whose families moved from California during their senior years in high school. Angie Carillo came to Las Vegas in 2005, not long before the air went out of the housing bubble. She finished high school but soon was pregnant with her first child. She recently became homeless, having quit her job for want of child care. On a blazing hot day in August, she was feeding her kids ground beef, rice and bananas, courtesy of a Catholic Charities center. “They said it was cheaper than California and there were more jobs,” she says. “It is cheaper, but I don’t know about the jobs.”

In her 30s, Erika Borges still complains that her parents “dragged me here from L.A.” Unlike Carillo, however, she found her footing right away. Out of her group of friends from Los Angeles, Borges is the only one who didn’t get pregnant early and the only one to finish college, let alone attain a master’s degree. Now she’s working for Clark County -- running the annual Day of the Dead celebration, in fact. Borges credits the help and support she received as a teen from a Latino youth group. “I’m living the dream,” she says.