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'Poverty has no color' - Talking with Theresa A. Regnante, United Way













Theresa A. Regnante serves as president and chief executive officer of United Way of Long Island, where she has been pushing for positive change since May of 2009. She is currently leading the nonprofit organization, founded in 1965, together with its 110 community partners in supporting strategic initiatives that aim to improve education, income stability and health throughout Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Photo: United Way of Long Island

Question: How is the United Way approaching poverty on Long Island?

Answer: We look at asset limited, constrained, unemployed people as a percentage of Long Island. And if you look at that, Long Island is around a three million person universe, and we’ve got more than 300,000 families really at that indicator. And we’ve got a whole group of people in this gap who don’t qualify for human services or for DSS, but are really, really struggling. We would look at that as people who are in the deep end for a lot of years, institutionalized poverty, that it is not likely that an organization, one or ten organizations, can move those people out of the deep end of poverty.

It is likely that structurally things have to change. So structurally, it would mean if the federal poverty rate is not regionalized it doesn’t work well for people on Long Island. Why is that? Because look at our taxes and look at housing. The minimum requirement of income if you live in Kentucky or if you live on Long Island [is] the same measure of $24,000 for a family of four, there is absolutely no way. On Long Island it’s different than in other communities. There is not a recognition, congressionally. Appropriation of money should be allotted as a region, then the poverty rate on Long Island would be very different than the poverty rate in Mississippi.

Q: Do you see a direct relationship between poverty on Long Island and racism?

A: I think there is a relationship, but I don’t think that people of color are the only individuals that are, in essence, in poverty. I mean on Long Island there’s a pretty good demographic of people cutting across all races that are in poverty. Poverty is not a color.

I do believe that there is a way that organizations could work better together in advocating for change in policy, rather than just programmatically decide that we need to run more programs, [like] have more spots for childcare. Again, from an advocacy platform, the social service community should come together with the business community to advocate in front of legislatures. Those changes that would be much more beneficial for a community rather than just for [a set of] people. I think Long Island’s very provincial in its approach to how and who we want to help.

Q: Now, how would you suggest we bring these people together to have that conversation?

A: I would think that it starts with the language, and I would stop using the word “poor people.” It’s people you know, and it’s the same thing with housing. It’s not about affordable housing. It’s about housing. So, in a community are we going to decide that we have the appropriate housing stock to house the people who live there, it’s a yes or no. And I think the answer is no, because I don’t think we have the scale that we need and the scale that we need in relationship to affordability, whether it’s for young people or people earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Then we can take a look at understanding what is it that we need in this community demographically to support it, whether it was child care, housing or other appropriate services.

It’s different than isolating these people. So, I think that the conversation has to shift to community and to support people who are living in a community.

Q: Do you feel like there are some communities or groups on Long Island who are being ignored and left out of the conversation?

A: I don’t really even know honestly who’s having the conversation at that level. Like who’s really putting their foot on the accelerator and saying do you know how important this is? How important it is to the community? I think that the really strong advocates out there have been talking to themselves for so long. And those conversations are siloed because there’s not a recognition that it’s really important potentially to a power structure that’s in play. So, it all does come back to the willingness, the guts to have really tough conversations and for people. It really doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican or an Independent, what matters is how money is put into buckets to move the conversation.

Q: Is the main issue the fact that we put labels on everything?

A: That’s right. We compartmentalize. So, like in the area of housing, we do a lot of housing work. We build houses and we’re a developer and we don’t say we’re in the affordable housing business for people who can’t afford market rate, we say we’re in housing. Those labels unfortunately get the person to myopically go into “well, you’re just building housing for those poor people who might be on Section 8 who should work for a living.” Right. Those are the conversations you want to eliminate.

We want to have a community that has appropriate housing stock for the people who live here. And if half a million families are earning between $40,000 and $70,000, what is their option to rent? That’s the question, that’s what we should be answering. How come Long Island still has a single-family dwelling methodology when it has a bunch of young people who are interested in having a home like that? Why aren’t we building up? Why is it always out?

I think we’re getting to some of those questions and issues. I just don’t think it’s fast enough for the young people who need options and the option can’t be “I graduate from college and for 10 years I live at home.” That really is, I think, one of the biggest issues for communities. Converting zombie homes at the rate of 20 per year isn’t going to solve this.

And those are sort of the conversations that have to bubble up at a higher level. Take them out of the “not in my backyard” conversation and allow development to happen in relationship to how a community has to thrive. For the region, if we could get enough people around that, go. Then 10 years from now we’ve done something.

Q: And what would you say are the three main issues on Long Island that we should be tackling?

A: Well certainly I think the area of quality young education and child care is huge, as is advancing our housing. Our housing crisis is severe. Whether it’s for aging in place for older people or young people coming who want to stay here. If we picked a third area, it’s not something that necessarily United Way works on or what the United Way as an organization is funding, some areas are, but I think it’d be the general lifting up of people to get employment.

Employment equity or the wage equity conversation, and recognizing the trajectory that by the year 2030 the majority of Long Island will be Hispanic — one of the first suburban communities to have a majority Latino population. That is from a wage equity standpoint a big challenge. Because if you look at that information now you see the gap between Latino, white, African-American earnings. The wage gap, with the same education, is significant. Seems like a significant problem.

Q: Let’s talk about the ALICE report.

A: Well, I think that statistically it really does put in perspective zip code by zip code. The families who are living across Long Island, the struggles that every community has. And I think it’s an important recognition that there are just not one or two or three communities that are struggling and people in all these communities are struggling. It is a pretty clear picture that it’s an island-wide issue and problem, not a one community problem where poor people are.

What’s interesting to me is that people have not come together (who have been marginalized) to make more of a statement through their elected officials or who they elect. And that I think is really something civic-minded, that we need people at all levels to be far more civically engaged and hold the elected leadership accountable, whether it’s the municipality, the village, the town. People have to be much more vigilant as civic leaders to really move those mountains.

Q: What’s your vision for Long Island?

A: My vision isn’t necessarily from a long-term, strategic place, because I think there are a lot of uncontrollable factors. And I think that the best we can do as a region is to get enough of a mass of people who are in a position of influence to be able to come around on one issue and stay with it long enough that we actually can see a qualitative and quantitative result. I think that’s a possibility.

Answers have been edited for style and length.