Long Island must still rebound after recession

Job seeker John Keenan of Oceanside talks with Job seeker John Keenan of Oceanside talks with U.S. Post Office recruiter Terry Delia while exploring his options during Job Fair 2014 at the Clarion Hotel in Ronkonkoma. (Jan. 14, 2014) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Long Island's rush toward freezing some taxes and luring businesses for development has a goal -- to fuel the local economy and move us past the recession.

But what if the woes of the region's increasingly stressed middle-income families reached back farther and went deeper than the Great Recession?

Where would potential relief come from then?

That is a question residents and policymakers need to consider because it's true:

Four years after the end of the recession, Long Island has yet to rebound in wages, jobs and significantly reduced unemployment rates.

President Barack Obama, in his scheduled State of the Union address Tuesday night, is expected to address the increasing gap between high and low wage earners in the country.

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The gap on Long Island persists too, according to an analysis by the Long Island Index, with top-earning households far outpacing earnings in median and low-income ones.

Top-earning households account for 10 percent of the region's total; bottom-earning households account for 10 percent as well.

That, according to the analysis, leaves 80 percent of local households with earnings that have remained relatively flat since 2005.

Go to early 2013, and things look even worse, with wages in the region coming in at 2 percent lower [in 2012 dollars] than they were in 2007.

"This is not good," said Marc Silver, a professor of sociology at Hofstra University, who prepared the analysis.

"It shows that despite persistent and prolonged patterns of increased productivity, wages remain stagnant for middle-income earners."

Why? Because the economic benefit from all that hard work flowed up to top earners -- not down to the workers themselves.

"It hasn't gone for improving the standard of living for working people," Silver said.

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One byproduct, here and elsewhere: Stressed municipalities, desperate for sales tax revenue and jobs, offer property tax breaks to businesses that hire low-wage workers, which keep prices low, which attracts stressed middle-income workers.

"It's kind of like watching an economy cycle down, or watching it amount to chasing its own tail," Silver said.

So where, then, is the solution in a region that, over the past three decades, has significantly lost many of its aerospace and defense jobs along with other manufacturing jobs?

At its height in the 1980s, for example, Grumman employed as many as 25,000 people on Long Island; it now employs about 550.

One part of the cure rests with Obama and lawmakers in -- sigh -- Washington, where there are continuing debates on everything from raising the minimum wage, retraining low-wage workers for higher-paying jobs to more aggressively seeding economic recovery.

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Part of the cure rests with local officials too, perhaps by taking a lead from New York State by having businesses prove themselves by creating jobs and retraining workers before receiving promised economic development aid checks.

The region's middle class needs high-paying jobs to survive.

And to provide income, stability and a future -- in the middle class -- to their children.

Otherwise, the growing gap between rich and poor will become unbreachable.

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