The shadow of poverty has fallen on Long Island, New York, the birthplace of the suburban American dream.
Across Nassau and Suffolk Counties, families are falling from middle class to working poor and from working poor into poverty because of the recession, the housing crisis, the gap between wages and cost of living, and the utterly insufficient safety net. Families are living in motels, food pantries are emptying, and outreach agencies are running out of their funds to help with a month's rent or an overdue utility bill.
The gap between wages and cost of living is a national problem but is especially acute in Long Island because housing is so expensive. At the minimum wage, a total of 4.1 full time jobs would be needed for a family to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate, the Long Island Health and Welfare Council determined. More than 10,000 households in Nassau County, the richest county in New York, are on waiting lists for housing rental subsidy assistance.
The director of the Long Island Council of Churches, which runs food banks that are now experiencing a record number of requests for food, described the situation for many Long Island families as a "Sophie's choice: Do I feed the kids or pay the utilities?"
Working poor families often fall into a second gap—their income and the eligibility criteria for aid programs like food stamps and Medicaid, which are pegged to a national poverty threshold wildly out of sync with the cost of living on Long Island. Families who have lost jobs and homes and may be eligible for assistance find that they need a social worker to figure out the patchwork system. Their children do not face the confluence of risk that the long-time poor children in Mississippi and Louisiana do, but they are being dislocated, upset, disappointed, and embarrassed. Several were very reluctant to talk—one teenager hid in the basement for a while—as if their situation were shameful.
The new faces of poverty—the families that now seek help—include Jodi, a white, college-educated school teacher with three children whose divorce and special needs child have pushed her into the working poor. Hers is one of the families profiled in a Children's Defense Fund study, “Held Captive”: Child Poverty in America, available online at www.childrensdefense.org/heldcaptive.
Another, Joseph, is an Italian-American father who fell into the working poor when his wife became incapacitated with muscular sclerosis and could no longer work. She now lives in a nursing home. Although insurance covers her expenses, Joseph now is the sole supporter of their teenage son, Joey, and his paycheck from an auto body shop does not cover the mortgage, utilities and food.
He is terrified of getting sick or losing his job. "I can't pay all the bills. I don't qualify for anything. I don't eat lunch. I drink from the hose at work. That's just how things are. You gotta sacrifice for your child. Sometimes I feel like hanging it up but I can't. I'm a one man army here."
Jodi and Joseph try valiantly to maintain their children's sense of security. Parents who have lost jobs or homes to foreclosure cannot protect their children from disruption. Connie Lassandro, Nassau County's director of Housing and Homeless Services, said she has never seen such a demand for emergency housing or rental assistance. "The new faces we're seeing are families who have never before faced the risk of actually being homeless. Children don't understand. 'Where's my bedroom? Where's my toys? Where are my friends?'"
Among them are Bridgett and her husband, who were sharing a motel room with their son and daughter. Bridgett is jobless, her husband's construction work has dried up, and a fire damaged their home. Bridgett and Jillian, 8, sleep in one double bed. Joseph, 13, and his father sleep in the other.
"We argue so much I'm surprised we haven't been kicked out," Bridgett said. Joseph is having behavior problems in school and fervently wants a room of his own so his friends can come to visit him. Jillian seems to spend time daydreaming about living in a house again. She envisions having a room "filled with Barbies. It's going to be purple. I'm going to have a nice bed with a pink bedspread and I'm going to have purple and white shelves so I won't step on my Barbies. I'm going to need a lot of shelves."