The Season of Giving is at full throttle with appeals pouring in for contributions to worthy charities, many that help Long Islanders struggling with poverty. The Gerald Ryan Outreach Center in Wyandanch is one of those. It serves more than 1,000 people a month. Nearly 400 families will receive toys and food for their holiday dinners. But as one former center director said, after the holidays these folks will still need our help. Why is that?
Despite our charity, Americans have mixed feelings about poverty rooted in a distortion of the Colonial Puritan work ethic. Historians tell us that as the Puritans looked for signs that they were saved, they settled on the hardest-working, presumably wealthy people, as “the elect.” That left poor people, presumably not the hardest-working, as the damned.
This prejudice that low-income people are lazy and cause their own poverty is embedded in American public policies. For example, food stamp recipients in some states are required to work because it is assumed they would prefer a food handout to a job, despite the fact that three-fourths of food stamp recipients work.
On the surface, Long Island appears to be among America’s elect. Its federal poverty rate is 6%, half the national rate, and its median household income is almost $120,000, nearly double the national median income. But beneath this suburban affluence, nearly 270,000 households earning above the poverty level struggle to pay their bills in our high-cost region, where it takes $75,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on family size, to cover basic necessities.
Each month, many Long Island families have to choose between paying rent and feeding their children. Some 250,000 Long Islanders, many of them working people, seek help at food pantries each year.
During this Season of Giving, we should ask why so many Long Islanders need our charity. Do we really believe they are lazy? Or can we admit there are deeper structural problems that require our attention after the holidays?
Problems such as:
- The median price of a home in Suffolk County just hit $600,000. Using the standard that a family should pay no more than one-third of its income for housing costs, a family would have to earn about $200,000 a year to afford this home. The average two-bedroom apartment rental in Suffolk is $2,500, meaning a family needs to earn $90,000 to afford this unit. Long Islanders have contributed to this structural cause of poverty by defending exclusionary local zoning codes that prevent the creation of affordable housing in our neighborhoods.
- Working parents with young children need safe, affordable child care. But a child care center slot can cost as much as $20,000 a year. And yet Congress last year refused to substantively increase funding for child care.
- The 2023 federal poverty definition of $27,750 for a family of four — the same for all 48 contiguous states — is the threshold for accessing government supportive services such as Medicaid. Long Islanders and their elected representatives should demand that Congress regionalize based on cost-of-living this ridiculously low poverty definition.
Other examples of structural inequities that burden our low-income neighbors include underfunded, inadequate public transportation; tepid enforcement of state laws against real estate racial steering that creates segregated, low-performing public schools; and serious discrepancies in the funding and delivery of health care. Supporting public policies that address these inequities would be more helpful than charity.
Let’s consider this as we write checks during this Season of Giving.
This guest essay reflects the views of Richard Koubek, chairman of the Welfare to Work Commission of the Suffolk County Legislature.