PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS Construction—once one of Nevada’s two economic engines—is only beginning to come back. This is housing construction in downtown Sparks.

“This recovery still feels like a recession in so many places,” according to Barb Rosewicz of the Pew State Fiscal Health Project.

“It does,” said Discount Office Supply owner Marshall Roberson of Reno this week. “Well, we’re doing OK, but not gaining much.”

“There’s still so many places that are empty,” he said, noting that Carrow’s Restaurants in Reno were shuttered in April—six years into the “recovery” from a recession that supposedly lasted only from 2007 to 2009.

A year ago, after five years of supposed economic recovery, the Associated Press reported, “Nevada, which suffered a spectacular real estate bust and four years of double-digit unemployment—has fared worst. It has 6 percent fewer jobs than it did in December 2007. … Nevada has lost half its construction workforce.”

A year later, the jobless rate is still a hair under 7 percent. The construction industry is coming back, but slowly.

“Despite the recent strength of the recovery in the Mountain West region, Reno is still struggling to recover all of the jobs it lost during the recession,” according to Sid Kulkarni of the Brookings Institution. “Between the first quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2011, Reno lost 36,000 jobs, or 16 percent of its employment base at the beginning of 2007. Between the third quarter of 2011—when Reno started to see jobs begin to come back to the region—and the first quarter of 2015 (the most recently available data), the area has gained back around 17,000 jobs.

“So, Reno is still short about 19,000 jobs to be considered ’fully recovered’ in terms of employment. Among all 387 metropolitan areas in the United States, more than half have fully recovered all the jobs lost during the recession, so this puts Reno in the unfortunate other half of places still working to get those jobs back.”

This month, the annual “Kids Count” report commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 23 percent—or 148,000—of Nevada children are living in poverty, and that 31 percent of their parents are unemployed.

In May, Nevada casino exec Steve Wynn told journalist Jon Ralston the recovery is “fiction”—though whether that was a reflection of his longstanding dislike of President Obama or of his actual view of the economy is anyone’s guess. “Well, the idea that America is in the midst of a great recovery is pure fiction,” he said. “It’s a lie. It’s a jobless recovery, because recoveries are marked by the level of real employment. And if you count the people who have left the work force, real unemployment is 15 to 20 percent.”

He went on, “The gaming industry is facing uncertainty in Nevada, in America, and in China. For the past 50 years, two-thirds of the gaming establishments in the state of Nevada have lost money. The industry as a whole loses money in Nevada—loses money. Nevada Energy doesn’t lose money. The gaming industry loses money. It employs all the people. It pays all the taxes. And if you take the … profit and loss of the hotels in Las Vegas and Reno, it is a number that is minus—not plus, minus.”

Nevada was the hardest hit state during the recession due to its high foreclosure rate, so much so that the state is often used as a benchmark, as with a recent Bloomberg News assessment of Jeb Bush’s governorship—“During the four years after Bush left office, only Nevada lost a greater percentage of jobs, according to federal data.” For the first time in the memory of most people living, Nevada lost population during the recession, and skilled workers fled the state. Construction and gambling had been the state’s economic engines and when home foreclosures wiped out home construction, Nevadans felt it hard and deep. (In this year’s Nevada Legislature, Republicans approved new school construction only after cutting wages for it.)

According to University of Nevada, Reno economist Elliott Parker, “There is a reason folks called this the Great Recession, and I argued in columns four or five years ago that this was best understood as depression, though not as deep as the Great Depression. One historical characteristic of a depression is that you never really catch back up. In a normal recession, the growth rate after you hit bottom is faster than average, but the productive capacity lost in a depression is permanent.”

Parker went on, “It is true that the top 1 percent received almost all of the gains since recovery began in 2009. However, this is somewhat distorted by the huge losses they took in 2008, when the stock market plummeted. It is best to look over the longer term, and the trend has been going on since the early 1980s.”

He points to an Economic Policy Institute study released in January, “The Increasingly Unequal States of America/Income Inequality by State, 1917 to 2012.” It shows that from 2009 to 2012, the top 1 percent of Nevadans saw income growth of 39.8 percent and the bottom 99 percent experienced minus 16 percent—the worst disparity in the nation. The state’s overall income drop was 4.2 percent. This, remember, is after the recession supposedly ended. Little wonder hard times lingered so long.

And that trend had been at work for a long time before the recession, too, according to the EPI study—“In four states (Nevada, Wyoming, Michigan and Alaska), only the top 1 percent experienced rising incomes between 1979 and 2007, and the average income of the bottom 99 percent fell.”

Thus, since nothing fundamental has changed in the state’s fiscal structure in the last couple of legislatures, this trend is likely still operating.

Since Democrats have done so little to address this disparty—and in some cases have fostered it—they risk losing one of their best issues. Political debates have recently given voters the remarkable experience of seeing Republicans complain about the special treatment given to the top 1 percent by Democrats. “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires … earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928,” GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz told an ABC interviewer.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...