O'Shea: Battling poverty on LI will take new strategies

"The American dream isn't to work hard and "The American dream isn't to work hard and barely get by. But that's what's happening for increasing numbers of Long Island families," writes Gwen O'Shea. Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

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The recession is technically over, but the damage from its aftermath is even worse than when we were in the thick of it. That's typical of a disaster: The recovery is agonizing, complex and painful. And long.

The latest Annie E. Casey Foundation "Kids Count" report, released last week, found that the number of children in New York living below the federal poverty line ($22,113 for a family of four) rose from 865,000 in 2005 to 901,000 in 2010.

Here on Long Island, the 2010 American Community Survey shows that the child poverty rate was 7.6 percent in Nassau and 7 percent in Suffolk. For black and Hispanic children, the poverty rate was 14.2 percent in Nassau and 15.8 percent in Suffolk -- a 34 percent increase from 2008. Due to the high cost of living on the Island, families earning less than $38,000 a year are considered impoverished. And according to the Self-Sufficiency Standard of 2010 -- a report prepared by the Center for Women's Welfare at the University of Washington to measure how much must be earned in a given place to meet basic needs -- families earning less than $85,000 struggle to make it here.

It has been the social safety net of health and human services that has sustained families and children during this and other difficult periods. The federal food stamp program alone has kept 46 million people -- including 20 million children -- out of poverty. Despite the success of interventions and pervasive need, however, governments at all levels have passed or are proposing austerity budgets and cutting programs, threatening the economic stability of families and regional recovery.

The suburbs weren't built to be the home of the struggling. Our county governments weren't created to cope with the complexity and growth of poverty. The same economic forces that are pushing more families to the brink have left both Long Island counties with gaping budget holes -- a two-year deficit estimated at $95 million in Nassau County and a three-year, $300 million gap in Suffolk.

In response to these financial constraints, the counties have downsized and eliminated the health and human services that most immediately and critically affect low- and middle-income families, which for many jeopardizes their ongoing employment.

In the past month, Nassau County has cut youth and behavioral health services for children, disproportionately harming those already vulnerable and only pushing children further behind. Suffolk County cut child-care subsidies to hundreds of families, though this move has been temporarily blocked by a court injunction.

The families affected by these cuts use the services to maintain jobs, their economic security and independence. Taking away critical, regulated and cost-effective child care kicks parents out of work -- and forces families who are trying to work their way out of poverty to stay there.

The American dream isn't to work hard and barely get by. But that's what's happening for increasing numbers of Long Island families. Every government entity, business and community member has a stake in the long-term economic health of this region -- and that begins with the children and families who live here. The counties can no longer afford to operate as they have historically, so it's time to renegotiate how we provide assistance to struggling Long Islanders.

This will require reforming -- not dramatically decreasing -- the way government dollars are used to support the critical safety net. A starting point is for government to move from providing services to purchasing them from the nonprofit sector. For example, the federal and New York State governments should consider contracting directly with nonprofits for emergency shelters and mental health services, taking the counties out of the mix, reducing their administrative roles and investing the resources in the services instead. In the instances where that's not practical, the counties must work with the nonprofit sector to create a work plan for delivery of services.

We have always been a regional community that comes together in times of need and disaster. Together, we have the right mix of business know-how and neighborly compassion to create an innovative, integrated service delivery system that brings the necessary assistance for economic recovery to reach all Long Islanders.

Gwen O'Shea is the president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, an umbrella group that represents a variety of nonprofit health and human service organizations.

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