Who are the poor on Long Island? 

They are your friends and neighbors.  While there are some who believe people are poor because they are lazy or otherwise “deficient,” the reality is very different.  The poor are very much like us – they are our neighbors.  They work hard, they desperately want to be self-sufficient, and they are demographically like us.  They have the same dreams, hopes and wishes. 

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Shattering the stereotype

The stereotype of the poor was shattered by a report published in December 2012 by the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission.  Last December the Commission published a report on surveys they conducted last year entitled Struggling in Suburbia:  Meeting the Challenges of Poverty in Suffolk County.  The Commission gathered information from and interviewed 102 government officials, academic experts, agency representatives and the public.  They quickly learned that the Federal Poverty Level designation of $23,050 for a family of four is woefully inadequate given the high cost of living on Long Island. Instead, they recommended $46,100 as a more realistic amount, although Long Island Association Chief Economist Pearl Kamer stated that in our region, a family of four needs to earn $75,000 to pay for basic necessities. When she calculated the actual Suffolk County costs of housing, child care, food, transportation and other basic expenses for a family of four, Professor Diana Pearce, determined that the true figure is $86,245.  It should be noted that Suffolk County’s median income is $87,187 according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

1 in 5 Are poor

Using the Federal Poverty Level measure, 6% of Suffolk residents would be classified as poor.  However, using the Commission’s $46,100 annual household income as a more realistic measure of Suffolk’s poverty level means that 20% of Suffolk households are poor.  Dr. Richard Koubek, Chair of the report, said in an e-mail that almost everything they found for Suffolk is true for Nassau County, though currently there is no funding for a similar study in Nassau.

Commission findings

The Commission heard more than 20 hours of testimony from 102 witnesses about and from the working poor.  Testimony revealed that rigid program regulations for government assistance too often prevented these households from receiving public assistance, leaving them essentially on their own or having to turn to charities for help.  Barriers include lack of health insurance, inadequate transportation, child care, lack of affordable housing, and insufficient training programs appropriate for Suffolk’s economy.  Instead, the restrictive policies tend to force people onto welfare when they would rather work, discourage others from working because the additional income would disqualify them from public assistance, and otherwise create barriers to self-sufficiency.  The Commission further found that many of the Federal, State and County programs designed to help poor households are underfunded, among the first to experience funding cuts, and include regulations that either discourage people from applying or outright deny them access to such services.
Where will funding come from?

While the Commission understands that Suffolk County government is itself seriously impaired by rigid State and Federal regulations, unfunded mandates and insufficient funding, it urges that the County find new sources of revenue to alleviate the revenue shortfall.  It recommends that the County raise an additional $71 million in new revenues through modest tax increases, of which $15 million should be devoted to programs designed to reverse poverty in Suffolk County. Recommendations include a ¼ of one cent sales tax increase next year, and an increase of 2% for the General Fund Tax, which hasn’t been raised in nine years, among other recommendations.

Mistaken beliefs

The Commission believes that many of the restrictive government regulations are based on a mistaken belief that people are poor because they are lazy or because of other negative behaviors, whereas in reality, it is systems and structures that create and perpetuate poverty. The report refers to a New York Times article published in late 2011 that described a dramatic shift from “urban” poor to “suburban” poor, shattering such stereotypes.  Trudi Renwick, Chief of the Poverty Statistics Branch, Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, told the Commission that between 2000 and 2010, the number of people living at the Federal Poverty Level has increased by 66.2% in the suburbs compared to 46.8% in major cities.  Ms. Renwick noted that “work alone is not sufficient to keep one out of poverty.” 

28% of the poor work full time, year round

According to the Times, “Demographically they [the suburban poor and near-poor] look more like the Brady Bunch . . . . Half live in households headed by married couples; 49 percent live in the suburbs.  Nearly half are non-Hispanic white, 18 percent are black and 26 percent are Latino.  Perhaps the most surprising finding is that 28 percent work full-time, year round” (The New York Times, November 19, 2011). 

Particularly striking was abundant testimony to the Commission documenting the struggles poor families face when they find that working disqualifies them from public assistance, yet they can’t earn enough to pay for the most basic needs for themselves and their families.  Here is an example from the report: 

Meet Mr. C; he could be your neighbor

Mr. C. is in his late 40’s.  He is a security manager with a wife and two pre-school age children.  He earns a gross salary of $49,000/year which is just over 200% of the federal poverty level and about $3,000 above the poverty level the Commission recommended as the real poverty level for Suffolk County residents.  His taxes, medical care and transportation consume a fifth of his gross income, leaving about $39,000 to pay for everything else. Mrs. C. had planned to work after the birth of her youngest child, but found that the cost of child care would be more than she could earn.  They were also caring for Mr. C’s ailing parents.  The family fell behind in their mortgage and utility payments, and sought assistance from United Way of Long Island.  Theresa Regnante, President & C.E.O. of UWLI said their real problem was lack of sufficient income to meet their basic needs.

What the LICC is doing

These are the individuals and families in crisis the Long Island Council of Churches helps throughout the year.  We feed more than 21,500 hungry Long Islanders a year and help thousands more with other basic needs such as utilities, gas, fuel, transportation, prescriptions, coats, sweaters, clothing, bedding and blankets.  For many years we also provided housing assistance, but no Long Island charity received federal Emergency Food and Shelter Program funds in 2012 for rent, mortgage, utility, or food assistance, and nothing has arrived yet this year, either.  Your donations through www.LICCDonate.org help us to fill the gap for these households, for whom we are often the place of last resort. Thank you for helping us help Long Island’s most vulnerable populations – they are your neighbors in need.

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