Mike Pember of Northport, a clammer for 35 years, paddles...

Mike Pember of Northport, a clammer for 35 years, paddles to shore in Cold Spring Harbor after a day on the Long Island Sound on Jan. 8, 2013. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

If you are one of the many people on Long Island struggling to make ends meet, don't feel like you're alone.

The odds are very good that your neighbors are, quietly and persistently, struggling to keep their credit ratings and finances afloat, just as you are.

And you probably shouldn't feel like you're at fault. "We make plenty of money, we've just got to cut back," we say as we fumble through the bills, looking for fat to trim. "Long Island is expensive, but salaries are better here, too," has been the mantra for decades.

It isn't true anymore. Increasingly, we know that. And now there is data to back it up. Housing costs here are out of whack with most of the nation. The taxes here dwarf the national average. Everything, really, costs more than it would elsewhere.

But the paychecks?

These days the income just barely exceeds what we could expect to earn in far less expensive locales.

As expenses on Long Island have risen and paychecks haven't kept pace, debts and delinquencies have mounted. And the worse it gets, the harder the challenge of digging out becomes. We cut down on lattes, ax the gym membership or eat out less often, but the next month we find the credit card balances are a bit higher, the checking account is a bit lower and a solution is no closer.


According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average weekly wage during the third quarter of 2014 was $1,022 in Nassau County and $1,031 in Suffolk County. The national average was barely less, $949. Those numbers are shocking and they don't go along with the conventional wisdom: that people here make good money.


According to both the 2010 Census and city-data.com, the cost of living on Long Island is about 50 percent higher than the national average.

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A huge part of the expense is housing. In March, the average U.S. home sold for $212,000. But on Long Island, homes sold in the first quarter of 2015 went for an average of $360,000.

Homes here cost 70 percent more than they do across the nation. And 70 percent is a huge premium to pay. But while the disparity in housing costs between Long Island and the national average is huge, the gap in property taxes between Long Island and the rest of the country is downright apocalyptic.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation, the median property tax bill in Nassau County in 2010 was $9,289. In Suffolk County it was $7,768. Nationally, it was $2,043. So in round terms, property taxes on Long Island are quadruple the national median.

And it's not just housing and taxes stressing our wallets. The 2010 Census tells us that our groceries cost 23 percent more. Utilities are 40 percent more. Transportation costs 13 percent more. Health care is 19 percent more.

And these expenses are very hard for even for the most frugal folks to control. You've got to eat, get to work, see a doctor, and have heat and lights.

And in a place where the usual paycheck is about like everywhere else, but the expenses are far higher, people start going in the hole.


Long Islanders have a lot more debt than the national average, and they're having a hard time paying it. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Long Islanders are about 10 percent more likely than the national average to have mortgages on their homes. And more than twice as many Long Islanders with mortgages, 5.9 percent, were at least 90 days delinquent on house payments here than the national average. Nassau and Suffolk residents also owe an average of about $78,000 more than other Americans on those mortgages.

When homeowners need to borrow more to keep up with bills, they go for home-equity loans or second mortgages. Long Islanders are 60 percent more likely to have a home equity balance than the average American, and the balance on that loan here is about 50 percent higher than national average.

Further down the debt chain come car and credit card loans. Long Islanders, again, are more likely to have those debts than the average American.

A new study by the nonprofit organization Reclaim New York found that Long Islanders at almost every income level have practically nothing left for savings, college or retirement funds after paying housing and living expenses that were the norm in their income brackets.

The numbers show many of us are going backward financially. Just a decade ago, only 1 percent of Long Islanders were delinquent on their mortgages.

Certainly most of us could spend less, but we don't want to deny ourselves or our families things we feel we deserve, whether that's an annual vacation or a car for the teenagers.

Yet, those expenses are not the real story behind our increasingly fragile finances. The real story is earnings out of whack with expenses. Small steps are being taken to slow the rate of increase, but in the long run that gap can't be sustained, and far more will have to change.


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