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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Job one: Recognize poverty's reach on LI

House keys and foreclosure notice.

House keys and foreclosure notice. Photo Credit: iStock

The U.S. Census Bureau took a second stab at determining poverty levels for the nation Monday.

But a realistic crunch of the numbers specifically for Nassau and Suffolk counties is years away. That's too bad, because, with the continuing strain on the middle class, the region can't wait for numbers to craft a plan to deal with a growing crisis.

The elderly are being hard-pressed -- in an area where the elderly population is growing and where more and more longtime residents are putting off selling their homes because they can't afford to.

And so are young adults -- more and more of whom, trapped by unpaid internships, low-wage entry-level jobs or nagging unemployment -- need help from parents to hang on.

Poverty has been an issue in urban areas for years. But there's also poverty in suburbia, where the gap between steady compensation and what it takes to make ends meet is growing.

Long Island, the nation's oldest post-World War II suburb, is also one of the first to grapple with changing demographics, changing economics and changing expectations.

The region will never go back to what it was even 20 years ago. It has no choice but to move forward.

"We need help to make it through this evolution, this transition into a new suburbia," said Gwen O'Shea, president of the Long Island Health and Welfare Council.

Poverty never became a key issue in a single debate or public exchange of ideas between candidates running for public office this year on Long Island.

"Nobody wants to use that word because it's not supposed to happen here," O'Shea said.

But that doesn't mean that political or business leadership is unaware.

Although no candidate -- on any level of government -- used the word poor, many nonetheless expressed a desire to help local families in distress.

Mostly, by not raising taxes.

The assumption -- I'm guessing -- is that money saved by not raising taxes is money that residents can put elsewhere.

"That's one way to think about it," O'Shea agreed. "But it doesn't take into account that safety net services," such as mental health, often go on the cutting board to save money, she said.

O'Shea made clear that she's not against cutting costs during these hard economic times. "What's missing is the recognition that one sector can't handle everything -- it's got to be an effort that involves government, business and not-for profit services."

That may sound complicated, but it's necessary.

Her suggestion: Since federal funds feed into almost every program that would help the region's poor, and the struggling middle class, officials on all levels of government need to work together. Business leaders and others also need to join them.

But first, everyone needs to recognize that poverty is a problem on Long Island.

"Maybe then we can develop a plan," she said, "because we don't have one now."

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