Elections come and go, but the state’s cost of living remains. Hawaii will likely be just as expensive after the results of this week’s vote are apparent, so perhaps it would be more constructive to accept that we aren’t merely victims of politicians’ shortsighted policies?

And while Hawaii is a national leader when it comes to the cost of living, maybe our greatest problem is not companies that corner our small market and gouge us every chance they get.

Similarly, maybe — just maybe — the “price of paradise” isn’t entirely due to long-distance shipping costs and the Jones Act, which increases our bills by requiring goods to arrive in Hawaii on pricey American-built ships with American owners and American crews (and salaries).

There are undoubtedly many people, forces and policies that victimize us when it comes to the price we pay to live here. But what if the worst grifter forcing us to squander our limited resources is, well, us.

Morning traffic on South Beretania at the Punchbowl St. intersection. 1.9.14 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Despite the cost of living, we are buying far more cars per person, as morning traffic on South Beretania at the Punchbowl St. intersection suggests.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

There’s no denying that we pay the highest median rent in the nation, at $1,414 in 2013 — more than $500 more per month than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Our electrical bills are three times those of many other states, and our groceries are the most expensive. But such high prices just highlight how much money we waste when we really can’t afford to.

Take gasoline. Yes, we live in a state with some of the most expensive gas in the country, but does it make us more passionate about public transport, place us at the forefront of a dramatic shift toward fuel-efficient cars, or make us devout supporters of something as simple as carpooling? It is hard to see how that could be the case in a state that has nearly as many motor vehicles as people and where the increase in the number of vehicles has doubled population growth since the mid-1990s.

The question is how do so many families, including many middle class ones, pay so much for private schools and cars, given the other pressures on their pocketbook?

It isn’t just about single-passenger cars on the road, or gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs everywhere. We are in the bottom five states when it comes to real per-capita disposable income, but we are a national leader when it comes to private schooling, which is an optional expense. (I won’t even talk about all those people lined up to buy iPhone 6s or loading up on luxury products at the supermarket.)

Nearly two in five K-12 students that go to school in Honolulu are in private schools, and about one in six kids statewide. Most of those parents — i.e., the ones whose kids aren’t on scholarships — made a choice to pay an average of $10,655 for their child to attend a private school during the 2013-2014 school year. (See the document at the end of this article for the rates for 95 percent of all private schools in the islands for this academic year, including price variations by grade.)

Multiply that by 12 grades and add in kindergarten at an average of $6,800 and a kid who does 13 years of private school education at the 2013-2014 tuition average would easily cost more than $130,000 to their household, not including school supplies and other costs. If they go to one of the premium schools it would cost twice as much.

The question is how do so many families, including many middle class ones, pay so much for private schools and cars, given the other pressures on their pocketbook?

Chart: Vehicles versus population in Hawaii 1996-2013 (square)

One answer, for those who don’t enjoy large incomes, is ohana homes. Hawaii nearly doubles the national average when it comes to the percentage of multi-generational households, according to the 2010-2012 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey three-year estimates.

Hawaii is far ahead of every other state; more than 11 percent of homes are multi-generational, compared to 5.7 percent nationally. That fact pads the number of people per home across the board in the islands.

Hawaii has 2.95 people per household in comparison to 2.61 nationally. Families in those multi-generation households pay a share of the rent that is usually less than they would pay if they didn’t live with their parents (or grandparents).

Some don’t pay rent at all and are subsidized by their parents. And in some cases, younger adults benefit from their parents’ lower mortgages from an earlier era or from longtime rental rates that haven’t kept pace with market prices.

This might sound like a good thing, and in some cases it is, but as several economists pointed out, it can hurt in the long term. Home ownership rates in Hawaii are the third lowest, behind only New York and California, at 57.7 percent.

That’s 7.4 percent below the national average — and there are about 7 percent more renters in Hawaii, according to U.S. Census numbers. Given such numbers, it appears unlikely that many of the families that are doubling or tripling up in homes are able to gather enough money to buy into the housing market.

That may be because the cost of entry into Hawaii’s expensive real estate market is so high that many people conclude it is out of reach. But the money they spare on rent or mortgages can — and does — buy other things, like an extra vehicle, tempting products or prestigious-sounding private schools.

The debate over the merits of private versus public schools will likely continue for years, or decades. There is little doubt, however, that some people are paying for private schools to the detriment of their family’s long-term financial stability because many incomes in Hawaii lose ground to real estate prices over time. People who enter — or try to enter — the housing market later, often have a harder time getting in.

So the next time you hear customers cursing about prices at the checkout counter, you might suggest they carefully examine whatever they are buying for unnecessary expenses and, perhaps, save a few choice words for themselves.

To access the private school database, click here and then type in the name of the school you would like prices for. (The vast majority of institutions are listed.)
Join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.

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