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So this is paradise. Palm trees sway in the trade winds that take the edge off the late-summer sun. Nearby, tanned bodies glisten on the sand.
Cabbie Lam Lu sits at the entrance of the parking garage at the Ala Moana Center shopping mall, overworked and stressed out as he awaits a fare. Lu is parked outside Foodland. Inside the supermarket, an advertisement shows two smiling girls eating hamburgers. Maybe they shouldn’t be so happy. The store’s pack of hamburger buns goes for $5.59, almost $3 more than it costs at a similar market in Washington, D.C. Do the kids want to wash it down with some milk? That’s another $3.69 per quart, which is nearly double the $1.88 it costs in the nation’s capital.
Yes, we know it is pricey here. Cars run on the most expensive gas in the nation, at $4.35 a gallon on a recent day. Our shopping centers and our homes use electricity that’s twice as expensive per kilowatt hour as the next costliest state, Alaska. We have to earn more per hour than Californians and New Yorkers to afford a two-bedroom home. Hawaii actually has the ninth highest median income in the nation, at $59,605. That sounds great to many people on the mainland, but when the cost of living is factored in, Hawaii slides down to the 21st highest median income. And we pay more for goods and services than residents of any other state.
And, as we all know, the list goes on. It is why we work so hard, skimp so much.
All of which is why Lu looks so glum. He doesn’t surf. He doesn’t hang out at the beach. To make ends meet, he drives his cab 12 hours per day, seven days a week. For every $100 he makes in fares, $15 of it goes for gas.
“No time for paradise,” he said.
In an ongoing series, Civil Beat will examine the reasons behind the high cost of living and how it affects Hawaii’s submerged middle class. How come life is so expensive here? Why is food — including our beloved Spam — so pricey? Should rentals and real estate around the islands really compare with world-class cities like San Francisco and New York City? And why do we pay so much just to sit at home with the lights on?
It all adds up to the price of paradise, the phrase coined by University of Hawaii law professor Randy Roth in two best-selling books by that name that he edited and co-authored in the early 1990s. And it affects every aspect of our lives, at every stage from childhood to parenthood and beyond, to our final days in some of the costliest nursing homes in the country.
We’ve heard the explanations. Many people accept it because we are on our archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean 2,500 miles from the West Coast ports that so much of our stuff ships through. There is a set amount of real estate on the islands, and there is competition for how it is used, which puts intense pressure on farmers, home renters and buyers. Some locals blame tourist-generated inflation. Others wonder who is getting rich — and maybe profiteering — off of our vulnerabilities. Others point at unions, a lack of competition, our small consumer market, high taxes.
So, what can be done to bring down the cost of living here? What are the actual costs — of shipping, of transportation, of labor, of regulation. We look forward to breaking them down.
We’ll also look at what political and economic interests are standing in the way of making Hawaii more affordable and how the islands might remake themselves politically and economically to improve residents’ quality of life.
As part of this, we want to hear from you about your experiences. What sorts of things do you question the cost of? What everyday products have inexplicably high price tags? What do you want to know about, what have you sacrificed to live here and what do you think can really change?
In the meantime, here are some facts of life in our islands:
— Hawaii has the highest cost of living in the nation, according to a U.S. Commerce Department Bureau of Economic Analysis report in June. The cost of living is 16 percent higher than the national average. (Second place goes to New York.)
— A single person can earn as much as $54,850 and qualify for housing assistance on Oahu. For a family of four, the cut-off is $78,300, according to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority. In most of the country, those would be comfortably middle-class incomes.
— We spend more on housing. Based on U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data, the National Low Income Housing Coalition says the median cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in Hawaii is $1,671 a month. That’s not just the highest nationally, it is about 71 percent more than the national average of $977.
Based on the HUD standard that families shouldn’t spend more than a third of their income on housing, the coalition calculated what hourly wage people around the country would have to earn to afford such an apartment. Hawaii again earned the dubious rank of No. 1. A resident here would have to earn the most: $32.14, compared with a national average of $25.25 per hour.
— A 2013 report by the Center for Housing Policy found that Honolulu was the fifth most expensive city for home buyers. The average income necessary to own one, according to the center, is $115,949.
— Similarly, the people of Hawaii pay the highest electricity rates at 37 cents per kilowatt hour, triple the national average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, according to the the US. Energy Information Agency. That translates into bills that are two, three or even four times those in other states. While rates can fluctuate quickly around the country, Hawaii residents are currently spending $60 per month more than people in Alabama, the state with the next highest monthly bill (even though Alabamans pay much lower per-kilowatt rates than residents of some states).
— The cost of having a car (insurance, gas, maintenance, depreciation, etc.) is the eighth highest in the nation here in Hawaii. A study last year by Edmunds.com, a car pricing website, estimated that Hawaii drivers will have to spend $52,683 on their cars over the next five years, which is about $3,000 more than the national average. Hawaii cars also depreciate the fastest in the nation, by $16,809 over a five-year period. We also pay the most interest to finance a vehicle, $4,084, and the gas bill for those five years, $15,822, is also the highest in the nation.
— Food costs more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates the differences in cost around the country to determine the size of food stamp benefits, and has found that food prices in Hawaii are 70 percent more than the national average. According to the USDA’s calculations, a family of four with young children nationally should be able to eat on a “thrifty” food budget of $373 per month. In Hawaii, it would cost the same family $632 for the same meals.
— We have to work more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6.2 percent of Hawaii workers have more than one job, compared to only 4.9 percent nationally.
There are those who say don’t worry. Be happy. Lucky you live Hawaii. But others note there are real impacts. Even for a middle-class that manages to scrape by, the cost of paradise often catches up to us late in life.
Bruce Bottorff, spokesman for the Hawaii chapter of the AARP, says that high prices have made it hard for most people to save for the day when they need help to live. “Most adult families have mortgages and rent, transportation, food and beverage costs, health care. And when you have all these costs, it makes it difficult to set aside an additional sum of money for an eventuality down the road. People take care of their immediate needs,” he said.
As a result, the AARP’s annual survey of Hawaii residents over 50 years old last year found that three in four said they did not want to rely on families and friends to take care of them in their old age, but more than half said they had no real plan for how they’d afford elderly care when they need it. (They acknowledged that they probably would have to rely on their families and friends.)
No wonder Tony Lenzer and his family have been feeling plenty of pressure. Lenzer, 83, said he had to put his wife, Joan, in a care home this year because she suffers from a variety of health problems, including dementia. Their children had taken turns helping Tony take care of his wife at home. But they couldn’t anymore. “We couldn’t keep her safe. She’s too frail,” he said.
They were among the (relatively) lucky ones because they bought long-term care health insurance that covers most of the nearly $9,500-a-month cost, Lenzer explained.
If they hadn’t, she would not have been able to afford the care home, Lenzer said. “I think it would be a very difficult situation. We would have to rely on family members, possibly friends, possibly neighbors to help out with the care. And even then we wouldn’t have been available for her 24/7.”
Old, with dementia, and needing your neighbor to bathe you.
Do you have a compelling story about the human impact of the cost of living, whether about you or someone you know? If you want to write it up, or share it with us, please write email@example.com.
And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.