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Nevada Is Booming but So Are Social Problems

Crisis: It leads nation in suicide and dropout rates and is second in teenage pregnancies and gun deaths. Critics say state lacks preventive programs.


LAS VEGAS — Tony Hammond came to Las Vegas on a Greyhound bus with $250 in his pocket and, like migrants everywhere, hopes for a better life. Four months later, Hammond was penniless and in the streets.

"Twenty-seven and homeless," said Hammond, his face flushed with embarrassment and his dark eyes staring at the ground.

Las Vegas has the neon lights and the endless entertainment, but throughout the booming state, Nevada's resume reads like a rap sheet: highest suicide rate in the nation, highest dropout rate, second-highest teenage pregnancy rate and second-highest number of gun deaths.

The nation's fastest-growing state has a dicey image problem, and some state officials contend that not enough is being done.

"Nevada has not traditionally invested in prevention," said state health officer Dr. Mary Guinan.

In fact, Nevada's draw may be part of its problem. Every month, thousands of new residents eager for a job and a low cost of living flood Las Vegas, which makes up two-thirds of the state's residents.

"We attract a lot of these people, drifters, people that haven't been able to hold jobs. They come in droves and then they fill the welfare list," said Bill Thompson, a professor of public administration and gambling expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Many are third-chancers, fourth-chancers. We're the last chance."

Nevada had the highest suicide rate in the nation in 1995, the last year federal statistics were available. In 1997, also the most recent statistics available, the government ranked Nevada fourth in smoking. This year, Nevada was second only to Washington, D.C., in the number of teenage births.

A recent national report said 17% of students aged 16 to 19 dropped out of Nevada's high schools in 1996. That ranked the state worst in the nation, where the average was 10%.

Other groups report even worse figures.

ReliaStar Financial Corp., a Minneapolis-based company, ranked Nevada as one of the unhealthiest states. In the company's annual state health rankings list in 1997, Nevada was 47th. Nevada scored poorly in the lifestyle category for the prevalence of smoking, motor vehicle deaths, violent crime, risk of heart disease and low high school graduation rates.

The Violence Policy Center, an anti-gun group, recently ranked Nevada second in the number of gun deaths. Louisiana was first.

"These unfortunate social problems exist worldwide. It's part of the human race. Why it stands out in Nevada I don't know," said Chris Chrystal, spokeswoman for the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

Hammond, who moved to Las Vegas from Lucerne Valley, Calif., thought that he could live on $250 until he found a casino job. But his money ran out before Hammond could get an interview or a $35 sheriff's card, which is required to work in a casino.

"I figured I would have a job in two weeks. I figured two weeks--it's Vegas, it's happening," he said.

Other failed dreams converge at St. Vincent's homeless shelter, where a line of 200 men waiting for an evening meal weaves around the corner.

Terrice McCarty is one. The 22-year-old found himself homeless after several months of being turned down for jobs at fast-food restaurants. He doesn't have any family to speak of and no friends in the city.

"I just gave up. It's basically suicide out here," he said.

Guinan and the lobbying group Progressive Alliance of Nevada say the state makes all the bad lists because it doesn't invest in public health education and prevention programs.

According to the Progressive Alliance, which helps promote more aggressive state policies on health issues, Nevada ranks 50th per capita for spending on health care and ranks No. 1 in health-related problems.

"Nevada's stingy," said director Bob Fulkerson. "Even in the best of economic times, we have barely paid for social health programs."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nevada spent $517 million on health and hospitals in fiscal year 1995. That averages out to $338 per person, well below the national average of $403 per person.

State officials acknowledge the problem but cite some improvement. "I think we've had just this tremendous growth and that certainly affects all of us," Gov. Kenny Guinn said.

"We're struggling somewhat when you look at our sources of income, sales tax and gaming taxes. When that doesn't do as well as we would like, it puts the state of Nevada in a very difficult situation," Guinn said.

Guinn has targeted, in particular, Nevada's high dropout rate with a program he calls Millennium Scholarships.

The governor wants to spend half of the state's $1.2-billion share of a national tobacco settlement on scholarships for B-average students or better to allow them to attend Nevada colleges and universities. The maximum scholarship would be $10,000 over four years. Health officials and Progressive Alliance contend that the money should go into health programs.

Still, as Las Vegas and Nevada continue to grow, Thompson believes that the state will remain a regular on bad lists.

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