Struggling Families Hidden In Plain Sight

June 24, 2011

This is not the kind of celebrity you want to qualify to be in,” Anne Strauss said, gesturing to the crowd around her at Home Box Office headquarters in Manhattan.
The gathering included a hefty share of Long Islanders, husbands and wives; and families that included young children.
They came together last week for a screening of an upcoming HBO documentary, “Hard Times: Lost on Long Island,” which follows suburbanites dealing with job loss, eroding wages and the sting of threatened foreclosure.
Lost on Long Island Image
The families were filmed beginning in the summer of 2010.
For Anne and her husband, Mel, of Smithtown; for Alan Fromm, of Plainview; for Nick and Regina Puccio, of Wantagh; and, especially for David and Heather Hartstein, of Montauk, dancing on the edge was all they had come to know.
But now, even two years after the Great Recession‘s end, the families still have plenty of company. Unemployment, according to report released last week, remains high on Long Island; and foreclosure rates in Nassau and Suffolk are skyrocketing.
Families of every income level across the nation are struggling, too. According to two recent federal reports, median family wealth has plummeted to early 1990s levels.
What makes the travails of middle and formerly upper-middle income Long Islanders so relevant?
“It shows that the American dream isn’t the American dream anymore,” Paule T. Pachter, executive director of Long Island Cares, which fights hunger in Nassau and Suffolk, said in an interview.
He’s seen the documentary four times, twice during special screenings on Long Island where only one of the invited Nassau and Suffolk elected officials showed up.
“Where are the elected officials?” he asked after Thursday’s screening. “Why aren’t they interested in seeing this? I don’t think they get what is happening; I don’t think they get it at all.”
Long Island’s pain, like its promise of a good life for returning World War II veterans, remains relevant. At one time, the goal for many Americans was a house in the suburbs.
“We did everything right,” Heather Hartstein, who lost her teaching job years ago, said in an interview. “We got the education, we got the house, we were living the dream and then it just stopped.” Her husband David died in 2011.
Anne Strauss is still looking for a job; her husband, Mel, is grateful to be underemployed, standing on his feet eight hours a day to earn a tenth of what he once earned.
“Something has got to be done,” she said. “If there’s a lesson here, it’s that if it happened to us, it could happen to you.”
The documentary is filled with places Long Islanders are likely to recognize: The neat streets of Plainview, a glimpse of “Fad” Huntington; diners in Hicksville and Sayville; the Melville Marriott; the majesty of the Atlantic Ocean as dark clouds rush in.
Yet, parts of the region — as the documentary shows — are hidden in plain sight.
Nick Puccio, who once worked on Wall Street, and his wife are seeking a modification of their home mortgage. Yet Puccio still dreams of the batting cage he would like to have been able to build for his sons.
Pachter sees other signs of the region’s distress. “The quality of life for many on Long Island is fast deteriorating,” he said. “You can see it in the homes where people don’t have to money to make simple repairs.”
He tried to get a plumber for one woman, for example, who wrapped a badly leaking pipe in duct tape because she couldn’t afford a repair.
Families who made it to Long Island, to nice homes, great schools, and six-digit salaries are finding it harder and harder to hang on. And their children are having an even more difficult time.
“We’re losing something great,” Mel Strauss said. “If we can’t figure out why, we can’t fix it, and if we can’t fix it, you’re next.”


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