More Long Islanders are receiving welfare than at any time since 1999, driven for help in sharply higher numbers than the rest of New York State or the nation - even as the economy shows signs of rebounding.
Nassau and Suffolk's expensive housing and huge number of home foreclosures in 2008 has deepened the recession for thousands of Long Islanders, experts said. That has helped to push formerly working families into desperate poverty required to get cash assistance from the state, said Gwen O'Shea of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.
"To get on welfare, people are seriously hurting," said O'Shea, the president and chief executive of the Hempstead nonprofit.
More than 29,000 Long Islanders, mostly children, were receiving support from the state welfare program, Temporary Assistance, in March, according to state figures released last Friday. That is a 20 percent spike from March 2009, according to the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.
Statewide during the same time, the number on temporary assistance went up 5 percent. Nationally, welfare rolls grew about 9 percent from 2008 to 2009.
The welfare upsurge on Long Island occurred as the number of properties scheduled for foreclosure on Long Island jumped 23 percent from 2008 to 2009 but declined 2 percent in New York City and 10 percent in Westchester County, according to figures compiled by propertyshark.com, a real estate data company.
"We are one of the foreclosure capitals of America," said Lawrence Levy, director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. "A lot of people who have never been poor before are entering the public assistance arena."
To qualify, a family's income must fall below the poverty line, less than $1,525 a month for a family of three. Even then, the rules often exclude many and are more restrictive than other programs for the poor such as Medicaid or food stamps.
Long Island's welfare population is about 1 percent of its 2.8 million residents. Statewide, about 3 percent of residents are on welfare and 4 percent in New York City.
For years, welfare checks to families had dropped on Long Island and across the country after national reform measures in 1995 installed work requirements, hitting lows in Nassau and Suffolk in 2007 before slowly growing in 2008.
The recent upsurge doesn't necessarily mean the economy is tanking, said Pearl Kamer, chief economist at the Long Island Association. Long Island gained jobs in March and unemployment fell to 6.6 percent from 7.2 percent.
People don't apply for welfare until long after economic shocks have reverberated through the system, Kamer said.
"Welfare is a lagging indicator," she said. "It tells you where you've been, not where you're going."
But once a family becomes poor, the high cost of living lowers the value of basic welfare checks, which range from $141 a month for single men and women to $477 for a family of five in Suffolk, said Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass. And it's nearly impossible to find anything but boardinghouse rooms on Long Island with welfare rental allowances of $309 for singles to $560 for a family of five.
"The shortage of affordable housing creates a chain reaction, a domino effect that ends in more applications for public assistance," Blass said.