The poverty rate for 2019 remained far lower on Long Island than the national rate, and the region's median household incomes were about flat or higher, according to census data released Thursday.
The poverty rate for Nassau County was 5.4% in 2019, down from 5.6% in 2018; Suffolk County's rate was 6.5% in 2019, down from 7.2% the year before, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The survey noted, though, that the year-over-year change for both counties was not statistically significant.
The official poverty rate for the nation, released Tuesday, was 10.5%. For New York State, it was 13% in 2019, down from 13.6% in 2018.
The median household income for Nassau in 2019 was $118,453, slightly lower than its median in 2018, $118,577. But Suffolk's median household income saw a statistically significant change, according to the bureau, rising from $102,215 in 2018 to $106,228 in 2019. The national median in 2019 was $68,703.
Despite such high median incomes on the Island, Gregory DeFreitas, a senior economics professor at Hofstra University, said there were caveats to consider.
"It doesn’t mean much when you put it across the basic cost of living on Long Island," DeFreitas said. "Housing costs on Long Island and the metro area generally are through the roof." He said even for a family of four earning $100,000, "You really can’t splurge on much, when you adjust for property taxes and the like."
Additionally, DeFreitas said, "People are very vulnerable because of paycheck paralysis," describing inflation-adjusted wage stagnation. "It’s been going on for decades now. The real purchasing power of people’s earnings are growing very slowly."
Long Island officials have complained for years that the nation sets the poverty level at such a low threshold — it was $25,926 for a family of two adults and two children in 2019 — that it is not a good indicator of need for high-cost Long Island, where people earning far more may still struggle financially.
"It’s a really poor measure because it doesn't adjust for regional differences and cost of living," DeFreitas said of the poverty rate.
The census data also included health insurance coverage rates. In Nassau, 4.3% of the population didn't have health insurance in 2019, slightly up from 3.9% in 2018, but the Census Bureau said the difference was not statistically significant. Suffolk's 2019 uninsured rate was 4.3%, up from 3.9% the year before as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic this year has brought a more sobering economic picture to the region, with millions of people nationwide losing jobs because of the country's shutdown earlier in the year to prevent the spread of the virus. Census officials noted the 2019 data they have released does not reflect the impact of the pandemic, which struck New York hard this past spring, and the recession that started in February.
"I think what’s really important to talk about is that there were a lot of people on Long Island before COVID who were struggling, and those folks are now facing crisis," said Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island. "The multiple jobs they had may no longer be available. Then, there’s an entire other cohort of folks who were making ends meet and now are relying on government services, food banks and new support systems for the first time in their lives."
Food banks on the Island, for example, have reported a huge surge in people seeking food, causing them to ramp up spending, with various governments providing grants for food bank purchases.
Nassau Social Services Commissioner Nancy Nunziata said that since the pandemic, "We saw a tremendous increase in both applications for food stamps and for temporary assistance."
Nunziata said applications for food stamps tripled, for example, going from an average of 1,000 per month in February before the pandemic, to an average of 3,786 in April. By June, the applications had "stabilized a bit" to about 1,500, she said. She added, "People are really struggling with food insecurity."
Applications for temporary assistance, the main public assistance program, increased as well, Nunziata said, rising from a monthly average of 200 to 250 in pre-pandemic times, to 400 to 600 between in April and May, before coming down in June.