Tera Burbank pulls a frayed robe tighter across her body as she leans into the refrigerator, her eyes canvassing the modest offerings for something to pack in her daughter’s lunch box.
Burbank stuffs carrot sticks, peanut butter and apple sauce into a backpack and cajoles her son and youngest daughter out the front door and down the street toward the nearby elementary school. The meager lunch box offerings are just one of many painful struggles that the mother of three encounters every day while living under the weight of long-term unemployment and threats of foreclosure, hunger and loss.
Burbank and her husband, John Clark, epitomize the dreadful economic situation these days in Nevada, where a mighty construction boom has given way to a historic recession and a record 14.9 percent unemployment in Las Vegas.
Burbank and Clark are construction workers who have been out of work for more than a year. They live off unemployment and student loans. Bills go unpaid and minor spats escalate into tense threats of divorce. Their daughters are performing poorly at school, and guidance counselors and teachers blame stress.
For Burbank, surviving means ensuring her children’s success and protecting the one place they could ever call home.
"It’s our everything," said Burbank, 34, of the family dwelling. "They can take the car and we will eat cat or dog food. Come what may, I’ll keep that house."
All around her, Nevada seems to be falling apart. The Silver State that once plucked its wealth from deep mines and then glittering casinos has lost its swagger. The jobs crisis shows no signs of improvement. Plots of arid land reserved years ago for towering hotel projects remain untilled. Nearly half of the unemployed worked in construction.
A chunk of federal dollars — $39.6 million in November alone — provides much-needed stimulus in the form of food assistance. Roughly 322,950 Nevadans, or 11 percent of the state, received federal funds to buy food in November.
Burbank dropped out of high school when she was 14 years old. She got married, had children, got divorced, then worked at Victoria’s Secret in California for $9 an hour. She heard of construction jobs in Las Vegas and moved here in 2004, when the state was in the midst of a massive building boom. People came for decent wages, abundant work and cheap homes.
Burbank made $22 an hour installing fire retardant materials at her first union gig.
She met Clark, an ironworker, in 2007. The first time she took him to the house, there was a "rent due" notice on her front door. He said he wanted to help. He wanted to be a dad.
"He’s my best friend and we planned our lives together," she said.
The couple earned a combined income of $75,000 a year building casinos on the Las Vegas Strip when they purchased the stucco, four-bedroom home for $175,000 in Henderson, a suburban city with street names like "Green Valley Parkway" and "Warm Springs Road" just outside Las Vegas.
"Sometimes I get happy, so happy," said Amalea, the youngest daughter at nine years old, "that I imagine this is a dream because the last place we lived was such a crappy apartment."
There are no doors on the children’s bedrooms, part of the floor is still concrete slab and the windows are shielded with sheets. But there is ample room for the children to play.
"It’s not just the financial investment," Burbank said. "It’s, we have our yard, our own garage. All of our children have their own rooms."
Clark, 24, put the mortgage in his name. He had good credit then. Not anymore.
The couple married at City Hall in May 2009, the month the home purchase went through. Their new life felt like so many wishes fulfilled, but dark clouds had already begun to gather. Burbank lost her job in October 2009. He lost his a month later.
The union bosses who once helped them earn overtime were apologetic when they asked about work.
"There was nothing out there," Burbank said. "There is still nothing."
There were no more trips to Disneyland. Christmas came and they bought the children school uniforms as gifts.
They earned $38,000, mostly on unemployment, in 2010. The debt on their five credit cards climbed to $6,700. They accrued $22,000 in student loans. The money went toward nursing classes at a local community college for Clark. Burbank took accounting classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. They paid a few months of mortgage, too, and waited for the time when their new educations would provide for a stronger future.
The demands of going back to school and tending to a family manifested in pains in Burbank’s chest.
The oldest daughter, 14-year-old Brooke, earned D’s and F’s at school. Amalea’s guidance counselor asked about problems at home.
"I don’t know what to do in this pressure," Burbank said.
Clark asked Burbank to be more patient with the children. A Christian, he said God would resolve their problems.
But Burbank can’t let it go and Clark is growing increasingly frustrated. He threatened to leave her three times in the past year, including the week before Valentine’s Day. He returned the next day to take their 5-year-old son Logan to the park and then a cartoon flick at the discount movie theater. He wasn’t ready to stop being a dad.
Burbank said she doesn’t know if the marriage will survive the tension.
On a recent morning, she was yelling at Logan to take a shower when the car insurance company called. Mounds of dirty and clean clothes teetered near the laundry room, stacks of textbooks decorated the master bedroom and Logan ran naked through the house, barreling toward the television.
The insurance payment was 30 days overdue. Burbank let the call go to voicemail.