Living on the Edge in Nassau County


Poverty is hard to define, I learned during a “Covering Suburban Poverty” conference sponsored by the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communications and the Poynter Institute last Sept. 26 and 27.

All of us carry images of what we think poverty looks like — the homeless who lug their meager belongings around in plastic bags and camp out in the woods; survivalists making do in ramshackle outposts deep within Appalachia; inner-city denizens holed up in burned-out tenements.

When you look closely, though, you begin to see that poverty — the inability to meet one’s basic needs (food, clothing and shelter) — is a far more complex picture, with countless shades of gray. The poor often work long hours, trying desperately to make ends meet, but seldom, its seems, succeeding.

Poverty is especially hard to see in Nassau County, the 11th richest county in the U.S. Magnificent mansions dot many shoreline communities, and sleek sports cars fill the parking lots of high-end malls. But make no mistake: it’s here, even in the heart of suburbia.

According to the 2012 New York State Community Action Association Poverty Report, more than 45,000 people live in poverty across Nassau, existing in survival mode, on the edge. They are young and old. They might be students, store clerks, unemployed executives or fixed-income retirees.

The Census Bureau’s poverty threshold is $23,492 for a family of four, while nationally the average household income is $52,762. On Long Island, however, a family of four needs $94,567 a year to meet its basic needs, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank. Thus, a family’s poverty threshold here is closer to $50,000.

“Living on the Edge,” an occasional series that the Herald begins this week, is about the challenges that people who are struggling to make ends meet face as they try to carve out a life in this very expensive place to live.

 For part one of our series, "The young and the homeless," a look at teenage homelessness in Nassau County, click here.