Struggling members of Hawaii’s middle class aren’t imagining it: Hawaii really has become a very tough place to get by.

In fact, it is the nation’s worst place to earn a living, according to a recently released money-rates.com survey. “The Best and Worst States to Make a Living 2015” ranking examined a plethora of factors — including how difficult it is to find a job, prospects for rising income, state taxes and how far a paycheck carries a worker — to come to its conclusions.

The millstone dragging Hawaii down is that last part, about the purchasing power of the average paycheck in the islands.

Salaries, as Civil Beat has detailed in these articles from our cost-of-living series, have not kept up with rising prices in the islands.

Hawaii’s average income is $46,230, which is in the same ballpark as incomes nationally, but wage earners — particularly at the lower and middle ends of the spectrum — face high state taxes and the nation’s highest prices. (The tax on the average income is $3,074.)

Money savings

The value of salaries in the islands plummets when the cost of living is factored in.

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So what happens to the average residents income after taxes? The largest portion of the cost of living for most people is the cost of housing.

The real estate website Zillow calculated that the median home value in the islands at the end of May was $537,000. Whether most Hawaii residents buy or rent such a median home, their salary is unlikely to stack up against it as well as it would on nearly all of the mainland.

The end result is that salaries in the islands — when adjusted for taxes and the cost of living — end up with a buying power of just 55 cents compared to the dollar it would be worth in a world of mainland averages.

And the end result is that salaries in the islands — when adjusted for taxes and the cost of living — end up with a buying power of just 55 cents compared to the dollar it would be worth in a world of mainland averages.

Residents of Hawaii are hardly alone in having more of their income redirected toward housing costs.

Nationally, renters have also suffered an increasing burden from housing costs. A declining portion of Americans can afford to buy homes and, worse, fast-rising rents are consuming an increasing percentage of their income, according to a recent report published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

Today approximately half of all renters nationwide spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

Economists and housing experts consider people who pay such a large share of their income for their housing to be “cost burdened,” meaning they have a harder time saving money, preparing for the future and responding to income shocks like the loss of a job or a medical illness that requires a break from work.

One renter in four nationally is extremely cost burdened, spending more than 50 percent of his or her income on rent, according to the Harvard study.

The report, entitled, The State of the Nation’s Housing 2015, found that the portion of renters between the ages of 25 and 34 who carry such cost burdens rose from 40 percent to 46 percent over the last decade. The percentage of people spending more than half of their income on rent jumped from 19 percent to 23 percent.

During that period, many people have suffered stagnant or even declining incomes, especially when inflation is factored in. (Last year alone, rents rose nationally by 3.2 percent last year; double the rate of inflation.)

Here in the islands, similar factors have been at play — only more so. So while Hawaii has things going for it — like unemployment that hovers around just 4 percent statewide, and salaries that are comparable to those elsewhere — middle class salaries have lost value to housing costs. And that is key to why the housing deck is stacked against working people as they struggle to make ends meet.

The money-rates.com 2015 ranking of states is based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Council Community and Economic Research’s cost of living index and the Tax Foundation.

Read our ongoing report on Hawaii’s high cost of living and the search for what can be done about it here.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, click on the red button with the pencil and share it through Connections, or drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

You can also continue the broader conversation and discuss practical and political solutions by joining Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii.

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