When I first came to the Herald in January to cover Long Beach, I took in what most others see — the fine beaches, the beautiful boardwalk, the tony restaurants on Park Avenue and the cool, funky bars on the West End.
But the coronavirus peeled back the layers fast, and what emerged was a portrait not normally associated with Long Beach, a place with a high median household income, fine homes, razor-cut lawns and a busy downtown. What came as a surprise to me was the significant number of people living below the poverty level, and the long lines for food whenever it’s given out by the city, the Martin Luther King Center or one of the religious organizations.
Some 6.9 percent of Long Beach’s 33,000 residents live below the federal poverty level of about $24,250 for a family of four. This seems high in a city where, according to the most recent U.S. Census figures, the median household income is $93,722 and the median property value is $478,800.
These surprising poverty figures aren’t unique to Long Beach. The larger picture is worse: Long Island has for some time been turning into a tale of two societies, one well-to-do and the other struggling.
Our vast middle class, for which we were long known around the country, is vanishing. Our once thrumming manufacturing base, made up of major national aircraft companies such as the old Grumman Corp., in Bethpage, and Fairchild Republic Co., in Farmingdale, is gone.
Those companies provided good-paying jobs that supported solid middle-class families, and boasted of generations of employees from the same families — great-grandfathers, grandfathers and fathers (and mothers). But those companies, and the workforces they spawned, have never been replaced.
As a long-simmering result, Long Island’s poverty level has grown to an eye-popping 6.6 percent, according to the census — the highest since President Dwight Eisenhower’s last year in the White House, 1959.
In once solid middle-class towns such as Levittown (the nation’s first post-World-War II suburb), Baldwin and East Meadow, there are too many struggles to make ends meet, a crisis that was taking shape even before the onset of the coronavirus, as thousands of good-paying careers were replaced by mostly lower-paying service positions. Now, even those jobs are disappearing in the pandemic.
According to Long Island Cares, a leading philanthropic organization, 10 percent of Long Islanders must make use of a food pantry every week. And in some Long Island school districts, some 80 percent of students are eligible for free breakfasts or lunches at school.
Of course, poverty and food insecurity have tragically been the norm in a number of Long Island communities since Nassau and Suffolk mostly abandoned potato farming in the middle of the 20th century. The issue is, these dreadful realities are spreading rapidly, sinking more and more people into food insecurity.
I’ve asked myself many times why this should be so in a well-educated, largely compassionate place like Long Island. Why, in Long Beach, are we building so many multi-million-dollar oceanfront condos when there is a crying need for more affordable housing? We can, after all, accommodate both. Why, at local government meetings, do we not hear more about what municipalities are doing about food insecurity and poverty? Why should there be long food lines at all outside the MLK Center or other agencies?
All is not lost, however, and Long Islanders, hearty, giving and caring, have survived hard times before. We made it through the horrors of 9/11, after losing so many brave first responders and other citizens in the World Trade Center towers. We made it through the ravages of Superstorm Sandy, and rebuilt our communities and our lives. We were able to do these things because we reached out to others, either to offer life’s necessities like food, clothing and shelter, or just a friendly hand. What seemed like small steps proved life-saving to many.
And we can do it all again. Once more, our efforts may seem small, but they can be life-saving. We can donate to some awfully important organizations: Island Harvest (www.IslandHarvest.org), Long Island Cares (www.licares.org), the Harry Chapin Foundation (www.harrychapinfoundation.org) or the Long Island Community Foundation (www.licf.org).
Over the years, what seemed like small steps have taken us where we needed to be. Maybe they weren’t so small after all.
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments about this column? JBernstein@liherald.com.