We should all be concerned about poverty on Long Island

Charles Fox is a lifelong resident of Long Island who now lives in Holbrook with his wife and son. Fox is a member of the Suffolk County Welfare to Work Commission of the Suffolk County Legislature and has been in the social services industry for 13 years. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Stony Brook University.

American Novelist James Baldwin once wrote: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

Working for the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk, Inc., a large anti-poverty agency in Suffolk County, I know all too well how true this statement is for far too many of our neighbors here in the region. Unfortunately, poverty on Long Island is one of the great unspoken issues that confront us daily, yet we often remain apathetic and/or ignorant to it. Nearly 10 percent of the population on Long Island utilize the services of a local food pantry on a weekly basis. Several school districts here have more than 80 percent of their student population eligible for the free or reduced school breakfast and lunch programs. As we approach the summer (the absolute best season to reside on Long Island in my humble opinion) it’s important to remember that many among us are barely able to make ends meet.

The term “working poor” is often used to describe individuals and families who are employed but still fall below the federal poverty threshold. The term seems oxymoronic in nature, how can someone in one of the most powerful and prosperous countries on earth work but still be considered “poor?” The answer is convoluted and complicated, invoking decades of economic policies (enacted by both sides of the political aisle) that seemingly failed to address the rising cost of living, wage stagnation, dying/obsolete industries, lack of training for the jobs of tomorrow and so much more. As we witness a push for higher wages in various non-skilled jobs we see a backlash of resentment.

Part of the reason why so many skilled laborers are so resistant to an increase to the minimum wage is because salaries for their fields haven’t grown fast enough to keep up with the exorbitant cost of living on Long Island and in many other areas of the country. I find that human beings are often innately inclined to faction themselves off. This divide accomplishes very little and helps almost no one. We should all be fighting for a decent wage for an honest day’s work. It’s almost criminal that such poverty exists anywhere in the world and very few folks care to acknowledge it. Even fewer have potential solutions to address it. One can drive by a shelter in Commack, Brentwood, Bellport, etc. and never reach the conclusion that many of us are one job loss or catastrophic event away from having to live in a shelter ourselves.

Often, we see the poor as the “others.” Those folks who made some crucial mistake in life that brought them to their current circumstance or we presume to diagnose everything wrong with their work ethic mere minutes after hearing their stories. This is the reality that often accompanies conversations about poverty, not just on Long Island but throughout the country (and sometimes, the world). “Those folks didn’t make good choices.” “If they could only pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” These platitudes sound reasonable to some, but they fail to address the barriers that exist that make it so difficult for someone to escape generational poverty.

I see it daily. Children who are malnourished are unable to focus in school which causes them to do perform poorly academically. Youth whose parents cannot afford enrichment programs designed to enhance and cultivate a young person’s education and worldview. The young parents who have to sacrifice quality early childhood education because they simply cannot afford the high cost of child care. All the research points to better social, educational and life outcomes for children who receive quality early childhood education from age zero to three yet we often do nothing to support that research.

All of these barriers (and more) create a pathway to cyclical poverty that is difficult for many to escape (though not always for lack of trying). How do we break it? In my years in this field, I can’t say that I’ve 100 percent figured that out. I can say that there are things we can do to help ensure that we are living up to the promise of this nation. That people who are willing and able, have a decent shot at the American Dream that so often seems inaccessible to so many among us. It starts with recognizing that there is a problem. Recognizing that not every single mother who is on food stamps is in that situation because “she wants to be.” Acknowledging that 70 percent of those who face food insecurity on Long Island are from minority populations who often face educational, language and employment barriers. Coming to grips with the truth we all know: Most people aren’t looking for a handout or “free stuff” as some would put it. They simply require assistance on the road to economic stability and self-sufficiency. If a rising tide does indeed lift all boats then all “boats” must be cognizant of the fact that some boats have been mistreated and neglected. Thus, we need to work with them in order for them to create equity in access to opportunities.

This is something that affects all demographics and all political persuasions. It shouldn’t be a divisive partisan issue. Sadly, it often is with people differing on the strategies we should employ to address the issue or whether we should address the issue at all. Personally, I believe that poverty has been and remains one of the most pressing issues of our time. When then-Senator John F. Kennedy visited rural Appalachia in the early sixties and saw the despair people were living in, he became aware of the fact that there are large parts of our country that struggle to keep a roof over their heads and put food on the table.

All these years later, we still see it. As poverty has increased on Long Island, we’ve seen the formerly middle-income folks who find themselves living in economic despair and insecurity. This shouldn’t be. We are better than that. We are better than turning a blind eye to our fellow human beings struggling to make ends meet. If my work has taught me anything, it’s that it sometimes takes a community of folks willing to help lift up others who have fallen on hard times. Even something as simple as providing rental assistance or job training can be the “hand-up” someone needs in order to make it through challenging times.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody; a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

That’s a philosophy we should all adhere and aspire to.