The poverty rate on Long Island in 2015 reached its highest level since 1959, according to a new report by the Long Island Association.
Notably, the poverty rate increase between 2011 and 2015 occurred solely in Suffolk County, with Nassau County showing a decrease, the LIA’s report found.
“There’s a perception that Long Island is affluent and doesn’t have people in need,” said Kevin Law, president and chief executive of the LIA. “But people are hurting. It’s always good to educate people about the status of our entire region.”
According to the report, the 6.7 percent poverty rate for Nassau and Suffolk in 2015 alone, the latest year for which data is available, was “the highest level of poverty reported by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Long Island region since the official government poverty series began in 1959, when the regional poverty rate was 6.8 percent.”
The report said Suffolk “has been hit harder” than Nassau between 2011 and 2015. In Nassau, the number of people living below the poverty line dropped by 12,201 people, or 1.1 percentage points (6.9 percent to 5.8 percent), but increased in Suffolk by 16,545, or 1.2 percentage points (6.4 percent to 7.6 percent).
The report advocates for changes in how the federal government measures poverty, saying the current formula – which hasn’t been updated since it was created in the 1960s – understates poverty for high-cost regions like Long Island.
The average annual number of people on the Island who earned less than the federal poverty threshold of $24,250 for a family of four between 2011 and 2015 increased to 6.6 percent from 5.5 percent between 2007-2011, according to the report’s analysis of census data.
The average annual number of Long Islanders living below the federal poverty line increased by 32,953 to 185,415 between 2011 and 2015, up from 152,462 between 2007 and 2011.
“Coming off the Great Recession, Nassau has done a little better than Suffolk County,” Law said. He cited some “anecdotal reasons” why Nassau may have fared better, such as its closer proximity to New York City, where he said a third of Nassau’s residents are employed, versus only one-tenth of Suffolk’s.
The LIA report, sixth in a series the LIA has published since it established its Research Institute in 2014, is an outgrowth of an earlier report that found the number of middle-class families had decreased on Long Island.
“We saw that the number of households with 50 percent or less of the medium income grew by 3.4 [percentage points],” Law said. “And we were wondering how many in that particular category were actually living in poverty . . . We care about all of Long Island and its people.”
Law said, and the report noted, that Long Island faced a shortfall in what the region sends to state and national governments in taxes and what it gets back in governmental benefits.
“We send $23 billion more to Washington than we get back,” Law said.
To address that deficit, the LIA report proposes enactment of a cost-of-living adjustment to acknowledge the region’s higher costs, that would lead to greater governmental assistance for Long Islanders.
The report also advocates turning the child and dependent care tax credit into a cash program instead, and raising the amount of the Earned Income Tax Credit.
The report also emphasized education and retraining so people can get jobs.
The LIA report drew praise from some in the nonprofit community.
Gwen O’Shea, the former head of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island who just this week began her new position as president and chief executive of the Community Development Corp. of Long Island, an affordable housing group, said the welfare council “and its members have been talking about the rise of suburban poverty for the past 10 years. This is not, unfortunately, a new statistic. But it’s certainly important that other entities, such as the LIA, are highlighting the challenges.”
She applauded the LIA’s support of entitlement and safety net programs. But emphasized the need for corporations and businesses to provide “adequate health insurance, [and] fair and living wages.”
Paule Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares, a Hauppauge-based regional food bank, hoped the poverty report would galvanize local and state governments to do more to help “lift people out of poverty...If you don’t do it, the economy is going to suffer on Long Island, as well as the quality of life for all of us.”
Pachter, who is also an LIA board member, echoed Law’s frustration with the federal poverty measurement. That threshold of $24,000 plus for a family of four is not enough to survive on Long Island and families who make more than that are still struggling but don’t qualify for government assistance.
“You can’t live on the current poverty [threshold] on Long Island,” he said.
Meanwhile, Pachter said, more people “are coming to us ...We are going to shortly release a study on the emergency food network on Long Island. What we’re seeing [is] 50 percent of our agencies, out of 570, are seeing an increase between 10 and 25 percent in the number of people turning to pantries.”
Long Island Cares, in addition to distributing food to other agencies, operates its own pantries in Freeport, Lindenhurst and Huntington Station, as well as four mobile pantries.
Dawud Abdul-Ali, 54, of Freeport, a U.S. Army veteran and a former paramedic who said he is now on disability, came to Long Island Cares’ Freeport pantry Monday. He called it critical in meeting his family’s nutritional needs — he has a wife and an 8-year-old son. The pantry fills the gap when his food stamp allotment runs out or when he has to wait to be recertified to continue to receive benefits, like now.
“My son, he’s a vegetable fanatic, so I get the vegetables,” Abdul-Ali said. “I have a little dog and I get pet food” from the pantry on his weekly visits. He can even get the spices he likes as well.
If not for Long Island Cares pantry, Abdul-Ali said, “I think I’d be lost.”
FINDINGS FROM THE LIA REPORT ON POVERTY ON LONG ISLAND
POVERTY RATE FOR LI IN 1959: 6.8 PERCENT
POVERTY RATE FOR 2015: 6.7 PERCENT
NUMBER OF PERSONS BELOW THE FEDERAL POVERTY LINE ON LONG ISLAND/AVERAGE ANNUAL:
PERCENT OF POPULATION BELOW FEDERAL POVERTY LINE/COMPARING 2011 TO 2015
NASSAU: 6.9 PERCENT IN 2011 AND 5.8 PERCENT IN 2015
SUFFOLK: 6.4 PERCENT IN 2011 AND 7.6 PERCENT IN 2015