While Long Island's overall poverty rates are far lower than the nation's, and its median income much higher than the national median, the latest U.S. Census data masks a great need among some residents, local experts said.
"We have one third of the households across Long Island who are the working poor earning less than $35,000 a year, which is above the poverty level," said Theresa Regnante, president and chief executive of the United Way of Long Island. "So we have a major, major group of families who are in desperate and dire situations" in an area known for a high cost of living.
The official poverty line threshold nationwide for a family of two adults and two children was $27,479.
The poverty rate for Nassau County was 5.8% in 2021, not a statistically significant difference from the 5.4% rate in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey released publicly Thursday. Suffolk County's poverty rate was 6.1% in 2021, compared with 6.5% in 2019, and like Nassau, the change was deemed not statistically significant by the bureau.
Using a different survey, bureau officials reported the national poverty rate was 11.6% in 2021, not much changed from 11.5% in 2020.
The median household income in both Nassau and Suffolk topped $100,000, according to the bureau's survey. Those medians are far above the national median of $70,784 in 2021, which the bureau reported earlier this week.
In Nassau, the median household income was $125,696 in 2021, not a statistically significant difference from the $125,533 in 2019. The median income for Suffolk was $113,683 in 2021, compared with $112,577 in 2019, also not a statistically significant change.
The bureau did not compare 2021 to 2020 data in what is normally its one-year ACS survey, citing disruptions the pandemic caused in preventing officials from fully conducting interviews.
For some Long Island families, poverty was much higher than the Island's overall rate. Families headed by single women saw higher rates than all families and married couple families. In Nassau, the poverty rate for families headed by single women was 9.9% in 2021, up from 8.6% in 2019, though the bureau said the change was not statistically significant. The poverty rate for the group in Suffolk was 11.9% in both 2021 and 2019.
"We have had no indications that the spigot is turning off, as it relates to immense need," Regnante said Wednesday in an interview. "We are distributing more than half a million dollars in supplemental food cards. We purchase grocery store food cards. We’re distributing those food cards to families that really are having a tough time."
Earlier this week, when the bureau released the national poverty rate, noting that child poverty in particular had plunged by half to 5.2% between 2020 and 2021, Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, praised the impact of government stimulus money and the expanded child tax credit. Still, she said: "We know that there are thousands of Long Islanders who were struggling before the pandemic … and were impacted more severely by the pandemic. These families require more time and more support to reach a sustainable recovery."
Regnante said government subsidies help, "but it helps for a very short period of time." She said families "might've gotten $4,000 or $5,000 in March and April, but once you pay debts you’ve accumulated, the money’s spent."
The census data also reported on health insurance coverage. In 2021, 3.6% weren't insured in Nassau, down from 4.3% in 2019, which the bureau said was a statistically significant change. In Suffolk, 4.9% didn't have insurance in 2021, not a statistically significant change from 4.3% in 2019, the bureau said. The national uninsured rate was 8.3% in 2021.
Janine Logan, spokeswoman for the Nassau-Suffolk Hospital Council, which represents 22 hospitals, noted New York State's push to get more people insured, and financial assistance programs at hospitals. "Every hospital has to let individuals know about the financial assistance law so they can get help to pay medical bills," she said.
Dr. Gerard X. Brogan Jr., senior vice president and chief revenue officer for Northwell Health, echoed that view, adding that Northwell had "greatly enlarged our financial counseling pool" to assist patients, including through teleconferencing to reach people who can't easily get to the hospital. "We've tried to make an effort to get to them."