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Poverty rises, incomes fall again on Long Island

Dawn Espinoza, 33, and daughter Keara, 10. They’re

Dawn Espinoza, 33, and daughter Keara, 10. They’re above the official poverty line but still struggle to make ends meet on Dawn’s $40,000 salary. (Sept. 19, 2012) Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

The poverty rate rose and median household income dropped in Nassau and Suffolk counties from 2010 to 2011, though changes in both categories were too small to be statistically significant, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday.

The figures continue a five-year trend for the region, showing the effects of the recession. The data come from the bureau's 2011 American Community Survey, one-year estimates for communities with populations of 65,000 or more.

A bright spot in the annual figures was a drop in the percentage of Long Islanders who don't have health insurance, reflecting a national trend. A sharper reduction occurred in Nassau County, where an estimated 8.7 percent didn't have insurance in 2011, compared with 10.2 percent in 2010. Suffolk's uninsured rate was 9.8 percent in 2011, down from 10.4 percent in 2010.

The poverty rate for Nassau in 2011 was 6.8 percent, up from 5.9 percent in 2010. Bureau officials said the margin of error rendered the annual increase statistically insignificant.

Suffolk County's 2011 poverty rate was 6.4 percent, largely unchanged from 6.2 percent in 2010.

The 2011 figure was a statistically significant rise from that of 2007, when the bureau said Nassau's poverty rate was 4.4 percent and Suffolk's 5 percent.

Median household income continued to drop: Nassau's was $91,414 in 2011, down from $93,897 in 2010, while Suffolk's was $84,106 in 2011, unchanged from $84,107 in 2010.

In pre-recession 2007, Nassau's median household income was $97,438 and Suffolk's was $90,298.

The nation's median household income in 2011 was $50,054, down 1.5 percent from 2010.

A Census Bureau national report last week pegged the U.S. poverty rate in 2011 at 15 percent, virtually unchanged from the prior year's 15.1 percent. Census officials said one likely reason was the increase in Americans who moved from part-time to full-time work.

The federal poverty threshold is a bone of contention on Long Island, where regional experts have long complained that it does not reflect the high cost of living here. The current threshold is about $23,000 for a family of four.

Chiefs of social services departments in both counties said Wednesday they continue to see increases in caseloads for nearly all benefit programs.

"Generally speaking, we are seeing vast numbers of individuals and families who have never sought government help before," Suffolk Commissioner Gregory J. Blass said. For food stamps, for example, the average monthly caseload in 2012 to date is 55,125, up from 40,951 in 2011.

Meanwhile, the department's rejection rate is rising because of federal and state regulations pegged to the federal poverty rate, "which for a family of four is a paltry $23,042 per year. And that is utterly out of sync with the reality of life on Long Island," Blass said.

He said his agency estimates a more realistic poverty threshold for Long Island would be $38,000 to $40,000 a year for a family of four.

He said some economists say such a family needs $76,000 for basic needs.

Nassau Social Services Commissioner John Imhof, in a statement, said his department continues to see signs of the strained economy "in all areas of public assistance applications, as ordinary citizens everywhere struggle to keep pace with rising costs of energy, housing, gas, medical and food costs."

The department reported increases in most benefit programs with the exception of public assistance cases. Those showed a slight dip in March 2012, with 15,001 individuals being serviced, compared with 15,547 in the same month a year ago. A department spokeswoman said the drop might reflect some people exhausting their eligibility for the cash welfare grant known as "Temporary Assistance," which has a 60-month limit.

Dawn Espinoza, 33, a single mother with a 10-year-old daughter, said she works full-time doing administrative work for a flooring company and attends college full-time, studying to be a nurse. Her $40,000 annual salary puts her out of reach of government assistance, she said, yet she's financially squeezed.

"I moved back in with my parents two years ago," Espinoza said, "I just couldn't afford living on my own any longer . . . between the high cost of living, gas prices, health insurance, it's impossible to be able to pay any other bills."

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