Officials: Census doesn't capture reality of LI poverty

Kathy Stewart cares for 3 grandchildren on

Kathy Stewart cares for 3 grandchildren on an income of about $1,500 a month, putting her below the federal poverty line for a family of four. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz

The 2009 estimated poverty rate for Long Island, which continues to be far lower than national or state estimates of the poor, remained flat compared with 2008, census data released Tuesday show.

That trend is a departure from the 1 percentage point increase in poverty between 2008 and 2009 nationally, bringing the rate of 14.3 percent - a 15-year high - the Census Bureau reported earlier this month. The rate for New York State in 2009 was 14.2 percent.

Local experts say the poverty rate for Long Island - 5.2 percent in both 2009 and 2008 - doesn't really capture the true nature of poverty here because costs are so much higher than many other places.

Gwen O'Shea, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, called the federal poverty standard an "antiquated" measure that, for example, defines poverty for a family of four as an annual income of $21,756. "That statistic doesn't capture the level of need in a place like Long Island, where the cost of living is so high," she said.

Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business and civic group, made a similar point.

"These rates really understate the degree of poverty on Long Island," Kamer said. "These are national poverty standards, and they really do not apply very well to a high cost area such as Nassau and Suffolk. You might not be considered poor by national standards [because of earnings above the poverty line], but given the high cost of living here, you could indeed be very poor."

O'Shea said a rise in Long Islanders receiving public assistance points to large numbers who are "impoverished."

The Nassau County Social Services Department reported a 21 percent increase in temporary assistance and Medicaid caseloads, and a 33 percent increase in food stamp recipients between 2008 and 2009. The Suffolk County Social Services Department reported a 9 percent increase in temporary assistance cases, 36.2 percent increase in food stamp cases and a 14.5 percent increase in Medicaid cases.

Kathy Stewart, 59, of Riverhead heads a household that includes three grandchildren, ages 11, 9 and 6. With disability benefits, alimony and food stamps, she said her income is about $1,500 a month, or $18,000 a year, which would put her below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

She has reached out for help. The Family Service League helped her retain Section 8 housing assistance. "The house I live in is much better than the one I left. I've been blessed," Stewart said.

Yet she struggles. "I go to the Salvation Army to get the clothes and stuff. I go to food pantries. . . . We're nowhere near the living standard," she said.

Whatever the federal poverty standard's shortcomings, the census data can be useful to highlight trends, said Seth Forman, chief planner for the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

"Not all families and households are affected equally by poverty," he said. His analysis of the data showed "poverty is rare among married couple families," where the poverty rate was 1.6 percent on Long Island. "For families headed by a single female, that rises to 11.9 percent. If that single female-headed family has children under the age of 18, the percentage of poverty rises to 19.1 percent, nearly 1 in 5," Forman said.

Also Tuesday, the census reported that U.S. marriages fell to a record low in 2009, with just 52 percent of adults 18 and over saying they were joined in wedlock, compared to 57 percent in 2000. Home ownership declined for the third year in a row, to 65.9 percent, after hitting a peak of 67.3 percent in 2006.

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