Newsday, February 16, 2008: As Long Island economy slides, the newly poor seek assistance

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Long Island last month saw sharp increases in applications for government assistance and a surge of people seeking food from overwhelmed charity providers, developments that county officials and economists blame on a lagging economy.

Suffolk County reported a 39-percent increase in food-stamp applicants and a 26-percent increase in welfare applicants last month, compared with 2007’s monthly averages, according to the Department of Social Services. Emergency applications for assistance with utilities also shot up 39 percent, even though January was unusually mild.

In Nassau, there were 37 percent more food-stamp applicants and 12 percent more welfare applications, compared with the same time last year, officials said. The county’s known homeless population surged to 863 last month, a 67-percent increase from January 2007. Nassau’s Office of Housing and Homeless Services is on pace to nearly triple the number of people it served last year, officials said.

Meanwhile, food pantries and soup kitchens say they are serving more people than ever. At the Mary Brennan INN, a Hempstead soup kitchen, about 450 people have shown up for lunch daily in the last month, 50-percent more than last year, said manager Jean Victor.

“It used to be we’d make 20 pounds of pasta and have some left over,” Victor said. “Now we make 60 pounds and there’s none left over.”

Economists said those trends are street-level evidence that the economy is slowing on Long Island, which the state Department of Labor said created only 4,400 net jobs last year. By contrast, Long Island’s economy added 15,700 jobs between January 2006 and January 2007, and more than 30,000 a year in the late 1990s.

In 2007, unemployment on Long Island increased in every town but Southampton, rising by 0.6 percent to reach 3.8 percent overall. That’s still well below the 5 percent national average but a foreboding sign for a suburban economy, said Pearl Kamer, the chief economist for the Long Island Association.

Increased requests for government assistance and longer lines at soup kitchens “are the first indicators that you may be showing economic difficulties,” Kamer said. Citing the subprime mortgage crisis, 30 percent increases in gasoline and home heating oil prices, and rising grocery prices, Kamer said: “In past recessions, it has always been the lowest income workers who line up at the soup kitchens and who apply for food stamps. I think this economic slowdown is hitting the middle class and that’s a bit frightening.”

At the Island Heart Food Pantry in Middle Island, co-director Dennis Murphy said he has seen an increase in what he calls “the newly poor.”

“We’re getting more of the relatively well-dressed man or woman with a newish car but say they have no prospects of a new job,” Murphy said. “They’re embarrassed to be here.”

Social services officials said the influx of applications can partly be explained by more vigorous efforts to spread word of the programs.

And not all signs are for the worse. In Suffolk, Medicaid applications are down 11 percent, and the known homeless population of about 275 families and 175 single men or women has not increased from last year, Hampson said.

However, charities and social workers say they are seeing more working people like Marie Thomas of Hempstead. A full-time home health aide visiting a soup kitchen for the first time, Thomas, 59, was in line at the Mary Brennan INN Friday morning waiting for a free meal.

She said her $500-a-week salary is no longer enough to buy enough groceries.

“When you go to the supermarket with $50, what do you come out with? Almost nothing,” Thomas said. “You just have to know how to save. That’s why I’m here.”

Although requests for government assistance are up, many people are not eligible because they make too much money.

In Suffolk, even as welfare applications increased in January, the number of people receiving assistance hit an all-time low of 5,304, said Roland Hampson, spokesman for the Department of Social Services.

“There is a growing gap between the amount of income a family can make to be eligible for government benefits and the amount of income necessary to make ends meet,” Hampson said. “We’re seeing the biggest potential need coming from the ‘gap population’ — those not eligible for government programs but having a difficult time making it on Long Island.”

It falls to nonprofits to pick up the slack, Hampson said, and charities said they are struggling to keep up. Long Island Cares, a food distributor for soup kitchens and food pantries, gave away 500,000 pounds of food last month, 30 percent more than in January 2007, said executive director Lynn Needelman.

“Our emergency food pantries are having a difficult time meeting the demand,” she said

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