The economic turmoil we have experienced over the past few years has affected all of us living in Hawai`i, but low-income families have clearly suffered the most. As our state’s economic woes linger, nearly 132,000 of our state’s residents live in poverty, including 41,230 children — 14 percent of all of the state’s children.

These families are suffering from a number of severe challenges as they pursue the shared American dream of fairness and self-achievement. Here in Hawaii, these barriers include:

  • The highest shelter costs in the nation. 75 percent of our low income families to pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing, and over 100,000 households are doubling up with other families or living one paycheck away from homelessness.
  • Food costs for a family of four are 61 percent higher than on the mainland, leaving 14 percent of our residents to rely on food banks and 11.4 percent considered “food insecure” by the USDA.
  • The highest cost of living, at 165% of the national average, coupled with lowest average adjusted income in the nation.
  • A state tax burden that is the third worst in the nation for low-income wage earners. The combined effects of the income tax and GET results in low income residents spending a higher percentage (12.2 percent) of their income for taxes than all other earners. This rate is almost twice that paid by people with an income of $400,000 or above.
  • A failing public school educational system that leaves 78 percent of 8th graders unable to read at grade level; 75 percent are unable to perform math at grade level.

At the same time low-income individuals and families need them the most, social service organizations that help prevent domestic violence, unemployment, hunger, and homelessness have had their budgets reduced by 18.5 percent and staffing cuts of 16 percent during the past four years.

While low and moderate-income wage people have been suffering, the more privileged sectors of our community have continued to prosper. During the past four years, Hawai`i consistently ranked among the very top states for the number of millionaires per capita; in fact, the number actually increased 18 percent over the past three years. Yet over the past twenty years, total wages paid to workers earning under $54,000 increased by only 20 percent.

Although these comparisons underline the many daunting barriers to self-achievement that poor and moderate income families face every day, we do have the power to strengthen our community through strategic government initiatives that can help restore fairness. A host of programs directed at preventing further destruction in low income families must be rebuilt and strengthened, particularly in the areas of children and adult health care, early childhood programs and education, domestic violence, and drug treatment. Additional funding can be found through the introduction of progressive tax policies, including taxing the pensions of wealthy seniors; collecting GET on internet sales; creating a sugary beverage tax; increasing taxes on hard liquor; ending the tax preference for capital gains; adjusting tax rates to reduce the amount paid by those living in poverty; implementing a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) program; and increasing the minimum wage.

Ensuring fair and equal opportunity for all citizens must move to the forefront of our political and social dialogue. To preserve our economic stability, human capital, and long-term well-being, Hawai`i must restore its legacy of fairness. Laying a strong foundation for a better future will enrich lives, reduce poverty, and ultimately save the state money.

Should we fail to act now, the crisis facing the poor today will irreversibly damage our community as our middle class shrinks and more people are increasingly dragged into poverty by inequitable policies.

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About the author: Victor Geminiani is the Executive Director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. He has been practicing public interest law since his graduation from law school in 1969. He has previously served as Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, Legal Services of Northern California and Western Massachusetts Legal Services.