Every month, Christine Fernandez juggles her family’s bills. If she must decide between paying the $3,383 rent for the five-bedroom home in Shirley where she lives with her husband and five children or their electric bill, it’s the electric bill that gets dropped.
“I’d rather have no lights than no roof,” she says.
That kind of choice is not uncommon for Long Island families living at the poverty line in a region where the cost of living continues to climb. The federally defined national poverty level for a family of four should be almost doubled for Nassau and Suffolk counties — to $55,500, according to a 2022 report by the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission titled “Still Struggling in Suburbia: The Unmet Challenges of Poverty in Suffolk County.”
One in five Long Island residents lives on that economic precipice.
Through scores of interviews with experts and Long Island families, Newsday’s Feeling the Squeeze series gives insight into why the region is so expensive and explains the financial toll that comes with living here. From struggles to afford child care, to the burdens of high housing costs and more, these stories impact Long Islanders of all backgrounds and walks of life.
In many families, the adults may be working, but they still struggle because they are earning more than the national poverty level of $30,000 for a family of four, yet far less than the $100,000 required to meet their basic needs in Suffolk — without frills such as entertainment, vacations or restaurants, according to the report.
They are stretched by rents that keep getting raised, by child care costs that gobble up take-home pay, by inflation ballooning the cost of food, by old cars that can’t be relied upon, and by unexpected health or household emergencies.
Often, they are in financial limbo because they make too little to cover all their expenses but too much to qualify for government aid.
How do they survive here? Here are the stories of four Long Island families:
Biggest challenges: Rent, the need for higher pay
Rochelle John, 36, says she lives paycheck to paycheck because even though she lives in what’s considered affordable housing in Coram, “To me, I don’t think it’s affordable,” she says.
She pays more than $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, with three children, ages 13, 6 and 5, in one bedroom and herself in the other. She earns $19 an hour as a manager at a fast-food restaurant where she’s worked for five years. She works four 10-hour shifts a week, plus occasional overtime. When she’s working, her 13-year-old daughter watches the younger siblings. She does not receive child support and the children's father is not involved, she says.
“It’s very expensive, one person trying to make it alone with three kids. I’m doing everything by myself,” John says. “Every year, I feel like it’s getting harder and harder. They raise everything else except your pay. The bills are there but the money is not.”
John worked a lot of overtime last year to help pay for everything, but now she’s worried her rent will go up. And overtime is not guaranteed.
In addition to rent, she has utilities ($60 per month), car insurance ($171 per month), a car payment ($466 per month), and expenses for the children. She pays $280 per month for cellphones and internet service, but doesn’t have cable TV because of the expense. The family has Medicaid for medical.
I’m killing myself to take care of my kids by myself, but if I give up, who’s going to take care of my kids?
— Rochelle John of Coram
She relies on credit cards when she can’t keep up with money for gas or buying something the children need. Then she pays $50 toward the monthly payment because she can’t afford to pay the cards off every month. United Way of Long Island has given her some rental, utility and other assistance. She receives $340 per month in food stamps and estimates she spends an additional $300 out of pocket.
John has thought about leaving Long Island, but, she says, "To go to another state that I don't know anything about, where I don't know people, that's another hard thing."
John recently had to have one of her sons tested for ADHD and it turned out he faces that challenge, she says.
“Now I have something else I have to deal with," she says. "They tell me he’s going to need to be on medicine just to focus in school. I have to get something called a 504. I have no idea about all these fancy words.”
A 504 plan enables a diagnosed child to get services they need to succeed in the classroom.
“I think I’ve cried so much I don’t even have tears in my eyes anymore,” John says.
United Way of Long Island information and call center allows Long Islanders to call 211 and reach a live person 24/7 who can assist them with referrals depending on their needs, 211longisland.org.
Job training programs
- "Power Up! Wind, Solar and Renewables" is a United Way of Long Island workforce training program designed to prepare individuals for a career in renewable energy. Program is free. 631-940-6530, unitedwayli.org/powerupcareertraining
- Workforce Development Institute, a job training initiative and employment counseling through Island Harvest, 631-873-4775, islandharvest.org
Biggest challenges: Child care, transportation and skyrocketing rent
Christine Fernandez, 43, says she doesn’t know how her family of five children, ages 21, 16, 12, 8 and 7, is making it financially.
Since October 2020, the family had been paying $3,000 a month in rent for a five-bedroom house in Shirley. But when the family renewed its lease last year, the rent went up $383 per month, she says.
Fernandez was working 30 hours a week as a sales associate for a retail store at Tanger Outlets in Riverhead, earning $19 an hour, but recently had to resign because she couldn't get child care for the younger children during her shifts, she says.
"The younger kids would have had to be home alone," she says.
Her husband, Damian Toomey, 40, started working full time in September as an auto mechanic, earning $25 an hour and hoping to have that increase when he completes some educational courses, she says.
The cost of living here is just so high, it’s so hard to survive.
— Christine Fernandez of Shirley
The family has been living on less than $50,000 a year before taxes, she explains.
They receive $1,210 a month in food stamps, and Fernandez says they spend about $1,000 additional for food. She says she shops carefully and applies for every kind of assistance the family may qualify for to help with costs. They are behind more than $3,000 on their electric bill because they have had to focus on paying rent, she says. They haven't yet had their electricity turned off; they are working on getting the debt paid, she says.
"It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she says of their situation.
Fernandez adds: "I have considered relocating. The biggest reason for staying on Long Island is my father-in-law. He is going to be receiving a hip replacement and will need to live with me so my family and myself can help him. Also, it is expensive to relocate and I can't afford that."
She says she worries constantly about her car, a 2005 Nissan Armada with 300,000 miles on it that she says is falling apart.
“I can’t afford a car payment,” she says.
When the car wasn’t working, she had to turn to a ride-hailing service to get to work, which was expensive, or she didn’t go to work because it wasn't worth paying the cost to get there, she says.
“I wish I had reliable transportation so when I do find better work, I can actually get there every day," Fernandez says. "That would be a huge help.”
Another big stressor is child care, she says. The average cost of child care in Suffolk, for instance, is $13,000 to $20,000 per child per year, according to a 2022 report by the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission. Nassau's most recent average cost for full-time child care is $15,000 a year for an infant and more than $13,000 for a toddler or preschooler, says Sean Reyes, deputy director of the Child Care Council of Nassau.
Fernandez's 21-year-old daughter attends Suffolk County Community College and works full time for a dispatching company. Her 16-year-old helps watch the younger children when both parents are at work. Fernandez says she’s applied to New York State for help paying for child care but didn’t qualify; paying for care would eat a big percentage of her earnings, she says.
RESOURCES FOR CHILD CARE
Biggest challenges: Property taxes, home maintenance, rising cost of food
Anthony Caruso, 75, of Huntington Station worked for Con Edison for 43 years — except from 1967 to 1969, when he was in the U.S. Army.
Those years as a tank driver based in Germany made him eligible for a reduction on his property taxes. Without it, he says, he wouldn’t be able to afford to stay on Long Island.
Caruso was a gas and electric technician before he retired in 2006. He and his wife, Teresa, 69, who has been a homemaker, live off a little more than $40,000 a year, he says. Caruso says he gets about $2,000 a month from his Con Ed pension and about $1,400 a month from Social Security. Teresa gets a few hundred dollars in Social Security as well. He also draws down from a 401(k) when required and when necessary, he says.
“It’s really not enough for everything how you want to live when you retire,” he says. “It’s tough. Thank God I have my own house.”
The Carusos’ brick ranch in Huntington Station was built by Caruso’s father. After his father died at age 50, Caruso lived there with his mother and eventually purchased the house from her. It’s paid off, but even so, the property tax bill and home maintenance expenses drain their finances, they say.
Without his tax reduction, they would owe about $11,000 a year; with the reduction, they pay $6,000, he says.
The couple is able to pay bills, but they say they have begun to rely weekly on the Long Island Cares food bank for help with groceries.
“It’s a little bit of a struggle, but we manage,” he says. “The hardest thing with the economy is everything is going up.”
Before Caruso broke his femur three years ago, the couple volunteered several days a week, he at the senior center in Huntington “serving coffee and things of that nature” and she at a thrift store. But since his injury, they’ve had to give that up.
Teresa has taken over most of the maintenance of their lawn and their house, they say.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” she says.
“Basically, we stay home,” Anthony says. The Carusos live near the Walt Whitman Shops. "So we’ll go there and we walk around the perimeter on the inside.”
On Tuesdays, he goes to the veterans center in East Northport, and in the warmer seasons he participates in their gardening project, helping to grow broccoli, kale and other vegetables for the center. Teresa is Caruso’s second wife; his first wife died of ovarian cancer, he says. Between them, they have three grown children, only one of whom still lives on Long Island.
In the past, their one annual splurge had been to take a cruise when they could find a good fare, they say.
“We usually call periodically. They always give money off. Anthony gets money off as a veteran,” Teresa says.
Last year, they took a trans-Atlantic cruise and saw Normandy and Paris. That indulgence may have to go, they say.
“I don’t know about the future,” she says. “Now everything is so expensive.”
Biggest challenge: Moving out of her parents' house
Christina Etienne’s greatest goal is something previous generations may have taken for granted: being able to afford to move out of her parents' house by the time she’s 30.
“I want my own space,” says Etienne, 28, who lives with her mother and stepfather in Freeport. “Knowing that 30 is kind of creeping up on me and I’m still living at home … My generation is pressed.”
Etienne is single and working full time installing solar panels. She’s paid $19 an hour. If she works a full 40 hours, her gross pay would be $760 a week, or $3,290 a month, before taxes. But some weeks she doesn’t work a full 40 hours due to weather or other issues beyond her control.
“Certain seasons are better than others,” she says. “Cold, raining, sun goes down sooner. Those few extra hours make such a difference. If I work 8 a.m. to noon, I’m only getting paid 8 a.m. to noon.”
She estimates her yearly pay to come out to about $32,000 before taxes.
“If I move out, all my money will go to rent,” she says.
She estimates renting even a small apartment would cost her $2,000. She doesn’t pay rent to live in her own bedroom at home, but she still faces all her other expenses, she says. Her monthly car payment is $300, and her car insurance is $400.
“That’s $700 a month right there,” she says.
There’s also her cellphone bill, not to mention groceries. Fortunately, she says, she doesn’t also have the burden others in her generation do: She does not have student loans.
Etienne graduated from high school in Brooklyn in 2013, and she did one semester of interior design work at Nassau Community College before realizing she loved doing electrical work. She took a free six-week course with United Way of Long Island called Power Up! Wind, Solar and Renewables Career Training and landed a job installing solar panels. She says the program helped her pursue a nontraditional career path, and she is the only female on her team.
She longs to be financially independent.
“I do want to start a family,” she says. “I want to settle down. I have considered leaving the state and going to Georgia or Texas, and if I were to stay, it is just because my family is here.”
Housing and first-time homebuyers' aid
- The Long Island Housing Partnership counsels renters and first-time home buyers, 631-435-7110, lihp.org
- Community Development Corporation of Long Island offers homebuyer and financial education and coaching, and free foreclosure prevention counseling, 631-471-1215, cdcli.org
- Housing Help offers free foreclosure prevention and homebuying counseling, 631-754-0373, housinghelpinc.org
Newsday wants to hear from Long Islanders about how they face the region's cost of living. Tell us your story here.