The nation's child poverty rate declined between 2020 and 2021,...

The nation's child poverty rate declined between 2020 and 2021, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. Credit: AP/Paul Sancya

At a glance, Long Islanders seem to be faring relatively well financially. 

When analyzing Nassau and Suffolk counties in the context of overall poverty rates, a cursory look at the data shows a region in good shape, with a poverty rate of 5.9% in 2021, compared with a national rate of 12%. Child poverty, meanwhile, fell last year on Long Island, and is now hovering at 6.34% regionwide.

Not bad, right?

Not so fast.

The federal poverty threshold stood at $26,500 in 2021 for a family of two adults and two children. That means anyone on Long Island earning more than that would not be counted in the poverty data.

But plenty of families on the Island earn more than that national cutoff but still can't make ends meet. In plenty of households, adults are choosing between paying rent or buying food but don't fall below the federal poverty line. The failure to account for the Island's high cost of living hides the true story — and creates an artificially bright picture, when the poverty reality here is far darker.

Changing the federal guidelines to account clearly for cost of living would present a more realistic portrayal of high-cost regions across the nation, including Long Island.

But even that might not go far enough. United Way's ALICE Essentials Index takes a different perspective, attempting to quantify a county's basic cost of living by looking at housing, food, transportation, child care and more. The Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed measure estimates Nassau County's 2018 cost of living for that same two-adult, two-child family at just over $84,000 a year, and $86,000 for Suffolk.

What a difference an economic ruler makes. The ALICE metric shows that more than 30% of Long Islanders are struggling, a far clearer picture of the region's economic difficulties. The problem is that the ALICE measure isn't updated as frequently; new by-county numbers are expected early next year. But if state and federal officials would more broadly rethink how they measure a region's economic troubles, they'd be wise to consider an index like ALICE, which takes a more holistic approach than the traditional poverty line marker ever has.

A better measure will matter in terms of providing assistance and assessing the problem. But where the line is drawn is only part of the issue. A more accurate look would highlight the need for more high-paying jobs in a wide variety of industries and for new affordable housing, and ways to bring down other high costs for those at risk. This winter's high utilities bills are expected to further challenge the well-being of those at risk. We must look for ways to help those among us who need it — whether or not they fall below an artificial line.

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.