Experts say LI rate underestimates level of poverty

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Long Island's poverty rates remained largely unchanged in 2008 from the previous year, continuing to fall well below national and state levels, according to new census data out Tuesday.

But experts say the figures likely underestimate the level of poverty here, since the region's high cost of living is not factored into the federal poverty formula.

The 2008 poverty rate for Nassau County was 4.5 percent, up from 4.4 percent in 2007. Suffolk County's was 5.5 percent in 2008, up from 5 percent the year before, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey. That compares to 13.2 percent for the nation and 14.1 percent for New York State.

Since the poverty calculations are based on a long-standing federal poverty threshold - about $21,200 for a family of four - many experts say it fails to capture the depth of poverty on high-cost Long Island.

"The cost of living here is much higher than in most other parts of the country," said Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the area's largest business group. The federal poverty rate, she said, is "not realistic on Long Island. What I'm really saying is more people are struggling on Long Island than the poverty rates would indicate."

The federal poverty threshold "would not be, in my opinion, indicative of the true nature of the situation low-income Long Islanders are facing," agreed Martin Melkonian, a Hofstra University economics professor.

Seth Forman, chief planner for the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said Long Island's cost of living exceeds the "national cost of living by roughly 30-40 percent, according to salary.com." An example is housing.

The percentage of Long Island homeowners spending 35 percent or more on housing costs in 2008 was 40.9; it was 47.2 percent for renters. Those figures compare with 29 percent of homeowners and 40.6 percent of renters nationally.

Forman's analysis of census data since 2000 show that, generally, "poverty rates on Long Island have gone down." A primary cause, he said, may be the drop in the number of female-headed households with families, from 13.3 percent in 2000 to 11.3 percent in 2008. But he said the "most vulnerable" group - households headed by single women with children under age 18 - had a poverty rate of 18.3 percent, well above Long Island's average.

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Concerns about the federal poverty threshold prompted New York City to develop an alternative measure. And New York State plans to follow suit.

"Since the existing poverty measure doesn't consider regional cost of living variations on the expense side, or government aid to households on the income side, it doesn't tell the whole story," New York City Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs said in a statement.

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