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Hearings spotlight poverty on Long Island

Nick and Regina Puccio of Wantagh went from regularly donating to food drives and local charities to turning to their local food pantry for help.

The Puccios, who have confronted mounting medical bills and debt since Nick, 52, lost his $100,000-a-year job as a trader with Lehman Brothers in 2008, were among panelists Friday at the first of a series of hearings meant to highlight increasing poverty levels in suburban communities.

"It's a big blow to your head to have to go to a food kitchen when you've been self-sufficient your entire life," said Nick Puccio, who remains out of work, while his wife works 30 hours a week for an attorney. The couple has two children, 17 and 20.

Titled "Struggling in Suburbia," the forum in Hauppauge featured testimony from residents, local economists and social service advocates in an effort to raise awareness about Long Island's growing poverty levels.

"We want to dispel the myth that people are poor because they did something wrong," said Richard Koubek, chairman of the Suffolk Welfare to Work Commission, which is charged with advising the county legislature on social service issues and which sponsored the forum.

The sluggish economy has dramatically increased welfare rolls in both counties -- since 2007, food stamp cases have grown by 148 percent in Suffolk, to 53,400, and 145 percent in Nassau, to 32,800.

Advocates said the federal government should adjust federal poverty guidelines currently used to qualify applicants, to account for the varying cost of living from state to state.

The federal government classifies a family of four with an income of $22,113 as living in poverty. But on Long Island the average family of four requires $75,000 to be self-sustaining, said Pearl Kamer, chief economist with the Long Island Association. Using census figures, Kamer told the group that 538,000 Nassau residents and 662,400 Suffolk residents fall below that income mark.

"We have been confronted anew with the sobering truth that the poor are not a set group," Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Gregory J. Blass said at the hearing. "It could happen to anyone."

Trudi Renwick, head of the U.S. Census Poverty Statistics Branch, said Suffolk and Nassau's surge in public assistance requests mirrors the national increase in suburbanites living in poverty. Over the last decade, the number of suburban residents living in poverty increased by 66 percent, she said. In 2010 there were 18.8 million suburban residents living in poverty, compared with 11.3 million in 2000, according to census figures.

"In general suburbia has a lower poverty rate, but it's been going up as poverty rates in all areas have been going up," Renwick said.

The commission plans to compile testimony into recommendations for the county legislature and state lawmakers.

Other hearings are scheduled for May 22, from 3 to 7 p.m., at the William H. Rogers Legislature Building, 725 Veterans Memorial Hwy., Hauppauge, and on June 1, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Riverhead Legislative Auditorium, 300 Center Dr.

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