Reflecting a painful national trend, the number of Long Islanders living in poverty is rising and median household income is falling.

More than 168,000 people lived under the federal poverty line last year in Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released Thursday.

That's a 6.1 percent poverty rate, up from 5.3 percent in 2009. Before the recession hit, in 2005, the rate was 5 percent.

"It's really hard to find good news" in the numbers, said Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group.

Though the Long Island numbers are well below the national poverty rate of 15.1 percent, the outlook here is nearly as bleak because of the high cost of living, experts said.

Poverty is defined as $22,100 for a family of four, but residents here earning twice that much should also be considered impoverished, said Richard Koubek, chairman of the Suffolk County Legislature's advisory Welfare to Work Commission. By his standard, Koubek estimates that one out of five Long Islanders are poor today.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy urged the federal government to regionalize the poverty standard.

"In the communities of Suffolk County, where the cost of living is so high, the national poverty level . . . is totally unrealistic. It actually blocks those with higher incomes, who are still relatively poor, from getting the programs and services they desperately need," Levy said in a statement.

The impact of the slumping economy has hit some minority groups the hardest.

The 2010 poverty rate for blacks (9.6 percent Nassau; 10.2 percent Suffolk) and Hispanics (14.9 percent Nassau; 10.3 percent Suffolk) far exceeded that of whites (4.5 percent Nassau; 5.4 percent Suffolk) and Asians (4 percent Nassau; 8.4 percent Suffolk).

Long Island's median household income dropped 2.1 percent from 2009, to $86,328 last year. At the same time, the ranks of those without health insurance rose -- to 10.3 percent, from 9.6 percent.

"We are dealing with a major crisis," said Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass, who said 12 percent of the population is now on Medicaid "and that's climbing."

"Certainly, we're seeing an increase in people coming to apply for benefits," said Karen Garber, spokeswoman for Nassau's Social Services Department.

Census officials and other demographers issued cautions in drawing comparisons between the bureau's 2009 and 2010 American Community Survey, particularly for towns and smaller areas. Last year's survey is based on the 2010 Census, while earlier surveys were calculated off 2000 Census data.

Latest Videos