More aid urged for working poor in Suffolk

The Suffolk County Welfare to Work Commission released

The Suffolk County Welfare to Work Commission released its report to the County Legislature outlining proposals for increased funding to aid the working poor. (Dec. 20, 2012) (Credit: David Pokress )

A special legislative panel studying the issue of poverty in Suffolk recommended Thursday that the county extend bus service hours, increase child care funding by $2 million, and rehire 80 county health and social service workers to aid low-income residents.

At a news conference in Hauppauge, the county's Welfare to Work Commission unveiled a 71-page report -- the result of a six-month study -- highlighting the challenges facing Suffolk's working poor in the wake of the recession.

"Suffolk County is one of the wealthiest counties, but that wealth hides the fact that we have thousands of people living in poverty," said Richard Koubek, chairman of the commission.

The panel cited the lack of affordable child care options as a key concern. This year, the county dropped more than 2,000 children from subsidized child care following state budget cuts.

Leigh Scozzari, 29, of Manorville, a mother of 3-year-old twins, said she had to reject raises at her medical assistant's job to stay under the federal poverty threshold for receiving child care aid. Without the assistance, she said, the $600 weekly cost of day care would be roughly equal to her biweekly take-home pay.

"How am I supposed to be a good mother when my children see me crying, stressed out about paying for child care?" Scozzari asked at the news conference.

The report called the federal poverty benchmark "inadequate" to address the needs of Suffolk's poor, noting the higher cost of living in New York compared to other states. Under the federal definition of poverty, a family of four must earn less than $23,050.

Using the federal poverty standard, 6 percent of Suffolk residents live in poverty; if the county factored in the higher cost of living, the threshold would be $46,100 -- meaning that 20 percent would be considered poor and eligible for benefits, the report said. The report said that a family in Suffolk requires even more -- $75,000 -- to be self-sufficient.

The report also recommends extending county bus hours past 8 p.m. and offering Sunday service.

The package of recommendations would carry an estimated $15 million price tag in 2014. The commission recommends that Suffolk request a quarter-cent sales tax increase from the state and consider increasing its general fund tax rate in 2014 to help pay for the measures. Last year, the State Legislature balked at passing sales tax increases requested by two other counties.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone plans to review the recommendations and has committed $3 million in child care funding in the 2013 budget, said spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter.

"The county executive is committed to staying within the property tax cap," she said of a state law that caps tax increases at 2 percent per year. "As we review the recommendations made by the commission, we will look for ways to find efficiencies within departments to address the issues highlighted by the commission."

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