The sky is overcast and Harbor House, Inc. is holding its regular food distribution day at Waimanalo Elementary & Intermediate School. Under a nearby tree, community members browse through an assortment of toys, car seats, clothing and other household items free for the taking.

At least twice a month, just like on this day right before Christmas, about 20 volunteers distribute almost 20,000 pounds of groceries.

When they started more than 10 years ago, the volunteers prepared at least 200 baskets of food in advance. These days, the volunteers put the food in boxes and they fill at least 500 of them, said volunteer Audrey Wong.

The increased need for food is just one sign that Waimanalo is suffering. The town, population 3,489,1 is the site of one of Hawaii’s most dramatic economic declines over the last decade, according to a Civil Beat analysis of recent Census data.

Waimanalo dropped from the middle of the pack to the bottom third among 131 Census Designated Places statewide.2

In 2009 dollars, the community’s median income fell from $63,1983 in the 2000 Census to $50,000 in the American Community Survey, according to data released in mid-December. The decrease was the sixth worst in the state.

Over the same nine-year time period, Waimanalo’s poverty rate climbed from 8.1 percent to 9.7 percent — a 20.4 percent change, placing it among the worst poverty increases in the state.

Oahu Income Changes

Source: The New York Times Mapping America Project

Waimanalo is the Windward coast’s southernmost town, 14 miles northeast of Honolulu,
Consisting of numerous farms, a feed store, a strip mall and a busy L & L Drive-Inn, Waimanalo is the last pit stop on Kalanianaole Highway before skirting the eastern tip of Oahu to Makapuu Point and the Hawaii Kai Golf Course. But most of the traffic through the town at 4:30 p.m. two days before Christmas seems to be heading north.

A light at the entrance to Waimanalo Town Center regulates the press of cars, buses and trucks as they hum through to their destinations: Kailua, Kaneohe and beyond.

“We’re just not buying anymore,” said a 70-year-old Harbor House volunteer who wouldn’t give her name but said she is a retired telephone operator. “I used to go buy flowers and things, and nobody has the money for that now.”

Those who do buy are likely drawn to the flashier shopping centers up the road in Kaneohe and Kailua. There’s not much in Waimanalo to attract the residents of those towns.

Not all economic indicators in Waimanalo are negative, though. The number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch in fact dropped 5 percent from 2001 to 2009.

The percentage of students meeting academic proficiency benchmarks has also improved: from 7 to 44 percent in math since 2001 (the first year students were tested), and from 30 to 58 percent in reading.

‘An Economically Challenged Community’

The Census news surprises the neighborhood board chairman.

“In my own personal opinion, I thought we were low already,” said Wilson Hekoa Ho, who has lived in Waimanalo all his life.

Ho is “approaching 70” and is a retired financial manager. He has served on the board for 21 years, he said — 17 of them as chairman.

“It is an economically challenged community, and one of the reasons why is we have a large Hawaiian homestead area,” he said.

Hawaiian homesteads occupy about 2,000 acres of land in Waimanalo. Because the land parcels are practically free, the people who live on them don’t need high incomes.

Community members work primarily in the agricultural, construction and service industries, Ho said. Townspeople holding jobs with the City and County of Honolulu probably helped stabilize Waimanalo’s micro-economy, some, but it wasn’t enough to offset other factors.

But for the construction workers, building projects have been few and far between since the economy crashed in recent years.

“If construction is down, we hurt,” Ho said.

And when a dry spell is unbroken, the farmers hurt.

Extreme drought on East Oahu has been drying up agricultural profits in Waimanalo for the last several years.

Although he acknowledges that Waimanalo’s economy is depressed, Ho also believes the Census numbers may be incomplete.

“There’s a lot of hidden income here,” he said. “We have a lot of homes with multiple families. We have one home about five doors down from here with, I would say, about 12 families living there. So how complete do you think the Census could be if they’re not polling all those families in every home?”

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