If the poverty guidelines were more realistic, more Long Islanders would...

If the poverty guidelines were more realistic, more Long Islanders would qualify for benefits like food stamps. Credit: Getty Images/jetcityimage

Sometimes, numbers don't tell the whole story. At times, they even tell the wrong story.

Take Long Island's poverty rate, which in 2022 stood at 5.9%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. That's compared with New York State's poverty rate of 14.3%. The nation's poverty rate, which is calculated differently, remained at 11.5%.

At first glance, the Island's poverty rate seems to paint a positive picture of a region economically healthier and wealthier than the rest of the state and country. But the region's rate is based on an excruciatingly low income level — $29,678 for a family with two adults and two children. Any family earning anything above that isn't considered in the poverty calculation.

That makes the federal poverty standard, which began when President Lyndon Johnson initiated the War on Poverty, an increasingly useless calculation. It most certainly doesn't tell the whole story — or the right one — in a high cost-of-living region like the Island. While the index does not include governmental benefits aimed at reducing poverty, it also fails to provide a fuller picture of the burdens of being poor, including lack of opportunity, inadequate housing, and insufficient medical care. 

The United Way of Long Island produces a valuable report called ALICE, standing for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. The updated 2023 ALICE report measures what it calls a "household survival budget." That budget for two adults and two school-age children stands at $79,668 in Suffolk and $76,932 in Nassau — a far better gauge of what it takes to manage a family on the Island. The United Way cites housing, food, child care and transportation as key "basic needs" and determined that 29.4% of households on the Island — 118,911 in Nassau, 166,268 in Suffolk — struggle to afford them.

That data provides a more accurate, complete narrative, better reflecting Long Island's reality. But until the federal government changes its calculations, families who fall within the broader ALICE threshold, but above the official poverty rate, must go without benefits they would otherwise receive.  

All of this matters. The Island's official poverty guidelines are used to calculate a variety of benefits, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. They're used for federal student loans, children's health insurance, and home energy assistance. And more broadly, they've been used for community development block grants, free school lunch efforts, employment programs, and legal services grants. If the poverty guidelines were more realistic and appropriate, more families and neighborhoods within the region would qualify for necessary benefits and services.

State and federal officials must develop better measurements that align with the region's economic needs. But adjusting the numbers won't solve Long Island's bigger poverty problem, as the ALICE data shows just how much housing, energy, transportation and food costs continue to weigh on so many residents.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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