Rich Man, Poor Man Long Island-Style


Poverty and extreme wealth on Long Island, where I live, have been in the national spotlight in recent days. HBO this month broadcast a powerful documentary “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island.” Filmmaker Marc Levin followed four Long Island families who suddenly became poor.

They’re not rarities. A commission established by the Suffolk County Legislature has been holding hearings about how 6.1% of the county’s 1.4 million residents now live below what the U.S. government considers the poverty line ($22,113 a year for a family of four). The hearings’ title: “Struggling in Suburbia: Meeting the Challenges of Poverty in Suffolk County.”

There have “long been pockets of poverty, created by race and income segregation” on Long Island, editorialized the New York Times on July 7. “But it is not just pockets of poverty anymore. These days the struggle has metastasized: foreclosed homes are just as empty in the better-off subdivisions, with the same weed-choked yards, plywood windows and mold-streaked clapboard siding…Long Island’s two counties, Nassau and Suffolk, have the second-and third-highest foreclosure rates in New York State.”

The four Long Island families presented in “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island,” as Verne Gay wrote in his Newsday review, “aren’t whiners or slackers, but desperate and afraid.”

All had extensive educations and well-paying jobs, and then in the Great Recession were tossed into poverty. Perhaps the most poignant of these stories was that of teacher Heather Hartstein and her husband, David, a chiropractor, of Montauk. He dies at the end of the documentary, which is dedicated to him. Look for a repeat of the excellent work on HBO.

Meanwhile, hyper-expensive fundraisers were held on July 8 in Suffolkfor Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney—and there were demonstrations protesting them.

There was a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser at the Southampton residence of David and Julia Koch. He’s the oil industry billionaire who with his brother, Charles, has been directing huge amounts of money into far right-wing political efforts, and now the Romney campaign.

There are some GOPers who charge that President Obama’s re-election campaign is seeking to gain political advantage by stirring up a “class-conflict” in the U.S. When the charge for a fundraiser is $50,000-a-plate, that‘s not about “class conflict.” Most upper-class people can’t afford a $50,000 lunch tab. It’s related to the Occupy Wall Street movement’s charge about the ultra-rich—1% of the population—owning nearly all the assets of this country.

“Romney has a Koch Problem,” read a banner towed by an airplane flying near the Koch estate on Meadow Lane. This was repeated on banners carried by many of the 200 protesters on the ground. “We’re here because of David Koch and his vow to purchase a president,” Anthony Zenkus of Occupy Wall Street told CNN. “It doesn’t sound like democracy to me.” It sure doesn’t.

Another Romney fundraiser was at the East Hampton mansion of billionaire Revlon chairman Ron Perelman. Here the charge was $25,000 to have a photo taken with Mr. Romney. Lunch itself was $5,000 a person, $7,500 a couple (almost a lunch two-for-one).

The third was back on Meadow Lane in Southampton at the estate of Clifford Sobel, who, after chairing fundraising in New Jersey for President George W. Bush’s first campaign, was rewarded with ambassadorships to the Netherlands and Brazil. Diplomat Sobel’s background: making a fortune selling store fixtures.

The demonstrators came from many organizations in addition to Occupy Wall Street including Occupy The East End, Greenpeace, Long Island Jobs with Justice, Long Island Progressive Coalition, MoveOn.org and NY Communities for Change.

The New York Times summarized the situation by declaring that “what was billed as a day of elegant campaign events at the homes of the ultrarich turned out to be an afternoon of curious and clashing tableaus: protesters with their bandanas and Occupy Wall Street-inspired chants (‘We got sold out, banks got bailed out!’) standing amid multimillion-dollar mansions, where live bands played ‘Margaritaville’ and donors dined on prosciutto-wrapped melon balls.”

Meanwhile, there’s news that home foreclosures on Long Island grew in the last three months. Poverty increases—and the 1% pay big to dominate the governmental system.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, has been a Long Island-based journalist for 50 years.

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