Raise 'poverty level' on Long Island to reflect regional cost of living

The Long Beach Surfers Association sponsored a food The Long Beach Surfers Association sponsored a food drive during a surfing event in Long Beach. (May 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim Staubitser

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The math of poverty on Long Island is stark and complex. And it's time for us to take a close look at those numbers.

Here's one shocker: As many as four in 10 households in Nassau-Suffolk have less family income than they need to buy necessities.

But the rate of people officially considered poor here, 6.1 percent, is far less than the national rate of 15.1 percent. What's going on?

The Welfare to Work Commission, created by the Suffolk County Legislature, began probing that question last Friday. Other hearings are at the county legislature today at 3 p.m. in Hauppauge and June 1 at 9 a.m. in Riverhead.

The idea is to look at the poor, near poor and new poor, to dispel the idea that they're responsible for their plight -- and to recommend policy changes, such as fixing the federal definition of poverty.

That definition matters. Suffolk Department of Social Services Commissioner Greg Blass testified that the near-poor are often ineligible for aid because of "an antiquated and grossly irrelevant federal poverty level." In the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C., the guideline is $23,050 for a family of four. The figure is not regionalized for different costs of living.

Yet, as Long Island economist Pearl Kamer pointed out Friday, a study by the Economic Policy Institute showed in 2009 that a family of four needed $71,913 a year to make ends meet on Long Island. By now, that would be $75,000.

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In 2010, 409,063 out of more than 935,000 Island households had income below $75,000. But if they were families of four making more than $23,050, they weren't poor enough to be eligible for many types of government help.

Trudi Renwick, a Bureau of the Census official, told the commission about a new yardstick, the supplemental poverty measure. It does take geography into account, but won't replace the official measure and can't be used to determine eligibility for government programs. She also said most families living in poverty don't get public assistance.

The commission won't end poverty, but it can chip away stereotypes -- and build momentum for change in the unfair federal poverty guideline. That's an effort well worthwhile.

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