LI families gripped by financial hardship
In tidy homes along quiet streets, that quintessential snapshot of suburban life, reside Long Islanders who are casualties of the nation's faltering economy.
Some have lost jobs and have not found work elsewhere. Others, if they were lucky enough to secure new positions, discover that those jobs may not pay as much as the ones they lost.
Overall, Long Island's poverty rate, based on the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 estimates, doesn't look so bad when compared with the national rate: 6.1 percent for the Island, about 168,000 people, versus 15.1 percent, or 46 million, nationally.
But experts and advocates for the poor alike note the federal definition of poverty -- around $22,000 for a family of four -- is woefully inadequate for high-cost Long Island, understating the true nature of poverty here. Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group, cited an Economic Policy Institute study that found a family of four needs $75,000 annually to be self-sustaining.
Social services officials and nonprofits in Nassau and Suffolk have reported increasing need. Organizations with food pantries say they've had significant increases in aid in recent years. Island Harvest, the region's largest hunger-relief agency, which supplies nearly 600 nonprofits with food, delivered nearly 8 million pounds of food last year -- 1.5 million pounds more than in 2009, said Randi Shubin Dresner, the group's president and chief executive.
The people who today share their stories all are weathering hard times after job loss. A married couple, once firmly in the middle class, talks of jarring financial instability and uncertainty. A mother of three is ecstatic that she recently found work after three years of unemployment. Another young mother has left Long Island in a quest for a lower cost of living. A senior citizen fears his age hurts him in his search for a job.
Jill and Kevin
For a New Hyde Park couple, admitting to the outside world they need help is like being stripped bare.
"I constantly feel like I'm standing in the street naked and people have run towards me to throw a blanket around me," Jill, 40, said as she sat on the living-room floor in her and her husband's modest split-level, cuddling the youngest of their three sons, who are 8, 4 and 1-and-a-half.
"But at the end of the day," she continued, "you feel a combination of 'Oh my God, people have seen me naked. And oh my God, people are giving me a blanket to help me.' It's a roller coaster of being mortified and grateful."
Her husband, Kevin, 41, agreed. It's "kind of tough stripping down, standing there saying 'I need help,' " he said. "It's humbling. It's frustrating. It's embarrassing."
But it's the hard truth, they said. To preserve some privacy while publicly speaking of their difficulties, the couple agreed to be interviewed if their surnames were not published.
The couple said assistance from family, friends and their local church parish has been indispensable. But being caught in an economic maelstrom not of their making has shattered their confidence.
Three weeks after they closed on the house in summer 2010, Kevin was laid off from the Manhattan financial firm where he had worked for eight years. He was earning about $175,000 annually, including a bonus. His wife, a former social worker who aided developmentally disabled children, was 8-and-a-half months pregnant.
Kevin was out of work for eight months. Last fall, he landed what he considered his "dream job," only to see the firm collapse.
Now he is employed again. But his $50,000-a-year salary falls short of what the family needs. They don't qualify for government assistance because the poverty threshold for a family of five is about $26,000 a year, what many advocates criticize as an outdated measure.
So, Jill and Kevin, who once donated to food pantries and other collections for the needy, find themselves the ones in need.
"Thank goodness for the church, and the support of friends," Kevin said, "because if it wasn't for them we'd really be in a world of trouble."
Jill, in a speech at a sorority fundraiser a few months ago, spoke of feeling exposed and vulnerable.
"Until I was in these shoes, I didn't fully understand it," she wrote. "Honestly, to me, someone in financial crisis was homeless, unemployed [or] in a shelter . . . In my mind, they didn't look like me or reside among me. I now know that is not true."
There was a time when Gemma Jittansingh-Mayers' family had a "comfortable" life, when she and her husband earned a combined income of more than $100,000. They could afford private school for one of their children, who had learning difficulties.
The recession ended all that.
Jittansingh-Mayers, 48, of Central Islip, said she lost her job in information technology support services in 2009, and her husband was laid off a year before that.
The resulting stress broke up the marriage, she said of their separation. "Financial turmoil brings out the worst in relationships."
When her unemployment checks ended in April 2011, Jittansingh-Mayers sought help from the Suffolk County Social Services Department. She obtained a cash welfare grant of $781 a month, she said, with some of that money used by the agency to cover the cost of her electricity and oil heat. She also received $668 a month in food stamps and Medicaid.
She trimmed costs: no cable or Internet service, and less heat this past winter.
Jittansingh-Mayers was thankful that a zone heating system enabled her to target heating to certain areas and shut it off in others. She abandoned her upstairs bedroom for the basement, where she and her three children slept in two bedrooms, she sharing with her daughter, Maya, 5, and her two sons -- Peter, 11, and John Paul, 6 -- in another bedroom.
She set the thermostat at 62 degrees most days and used electric space heaters in the basement bedrooms to keep them at a comfortable temperature.
Jittansingh-Mayers said she drained her savings and her 401(k) account to pay $3,000 a month in child-care costs before she received public assistance.
Good news arrived this spring -- a job. Jittansingh-Mayers said she was hired as an operations coordinator in an IT unit for a Long Island manufacturing firm. She said it pays about $43,000 annually.
After three hard years, "I feel ecstatic," she said last month.
Her financial worries are not over. She hasn't been able to pay her nearly $1,900 monthly mortgage in 18 months, and will again attempt to get a loan modification. But if she loses the home, Jittansingh-Mayers said she can accept that.
She's learned something in her ordeal and come out stronger.
"Even without money, I still am able to see myself as a wonderful person," she said. "Somehow, I sort of realized that in the struggle."
For three months last fall, Kori Glover, unemployed for several months, sought emergency housing in a homeless shelter in Medford with her family.
By January, Glover, then three months pregnant, had decamped with her infant daughter and toddler son to a motel in Southampton.
By April, she was in her mother's two-room cottage in Shirley. Glover, 24, slept on the couch. Her 3-year-old son, Denzel Johnson, slept in the bed with his grandmother, Catherine Salmon. And for her then-8-month-old daughter, Amya Glover, a Pack N Play doubled as a crib.
"We were like sardines," Salmon recalled. "We kind of ate in shifts."
By May, Glover had moved off Long Island altogether -- to the Albany area -- lured by lower housing costs.
"I moved here because this is something I could afford," Glover said by phone recently. A certified nurse's assistant who has worked at nursing homes for six years, Glover has been collecting unemployment since January 2011. And she's on her own now, since her husband was incarcerated in January on a weapons conviction.
Her rent for a two-bedroom apartment upstate is $575 a month, she said. The rate on Long Island was "at least" $1,200 to $1,300.
Glover said while she does get Medicaid, she was told her $405-a-week unemployment check made her ineligible for most public assistance, such as child care -- a critical need.
"It's almost better for me not to get unemployment and go sit in a shelter and let the government and everybody that works pay for me to live," Glover said during one of a series of interviews this year. "But I wasn't raised like that. I would love to go to work ... If DSS said, 'Here's child care,' " she says she would give up unemployment benefits and go to work.
Particularly galling, Glover said, was having to forfeit most of her unemployment check to cover the cost of emergency housing provided by social services.
She decided it was better to find housing on her own. That led to the Southampton motel at $250 a week, less than what she said social services took as reimbursement.
With her unemployment benefit expected to run out in about three months, Glover said she anticipates having to seek out social services briefly, because she's about a month from giving birth. Then she'll look for work "as soon as the doctor OKs me to go back."
He's 71, an age when many seniors decide to retire and take it easy. But not Kenneth Samuel.
"I can't. I can't," he said recently. He is desperate for part-time work to make ends meet.
Samuel lives in a one-bedroom apartment in subsidized housing for seniors in Hempstead Village. He said he gets by on $200 a month in food stamps and $725 a month in Social Security, a smaller amount because he retired early, at age 62.
"I was broke," he explained of his early draw on Social Security. Work had become difficult to get after he was downsized from his job as a customer service representative following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He's also collecting $80 a week in unemployment benefits, the result of a data entry job in Nassau County's Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) he had from 2010 to 2011. He was employed by the Department of Senior Citizens Affairs through a federally financed program known as Title V, which targets seniors displaced in the job market, said Sheila Corrigan, Family and Children's Association's program coordinator for HEAP. The nonprofit group now runs HEAP.
Samuel said his employment ended when his eligibility expired.
Corrigan said Samuel volunteers a few days a week at Family and Children's offices, adding that his knowledge of HEAP is valuable to the nonprofit agency. "I can't say enough good things about him," she said.
Samuel said he volunteers there "because it keeps me going. It doesn't help me financially, but it helps my mind."
Over the years, different government and nonprofit groups have operated the Title V program, advocates said. Samuel was employed through the program from 2006 to 2010 when the Urban League of Long Island ran it, said Theresa E. Sanders, the group's president and chief executive. She said it was a "real challenge" to find unsubsidized employment for seniors.
"They obtained new skills, but the market was so bad, they weren't hired," Sanders said.
Samuel, who said he was blessed with good health, thinks his age makes it "almost impossible" to find work. "That's the reality," he said.
The father of an adult son, he has a simple desire: upon his death, to leave a little money behind.
"I want to make sure he is able to bury me properly and not have to send me to Potter's Field somewhere," Samuel said.