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When it comes to the high cost of living, are you the kind of person who sees middle-class pocketbooks in Hawaii as mostly empty or part full? I ask because I am fascinated by the logic of some of the people who argue that Hawaii isn’t too expensive.
To be clear, I’m not particularly intrigued by visitors or transplants from prosperous metropolitan areas who note that they pay about the same price for specific products, like gas or a fancy restaurant, when they are in Hawaii or their hometown. Residents of places like the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, Manhattan and parts of Los Angeles tend to earn more, often far more, than on Oahu, which leaves them better able to handle high prices.
The people I’m interested in sometimes comment on articles from Civil Beat’s Living Hawaii series and in our cost-of-living Facebook group to assert that, if the middle class were under such intense pressure, the islands would be hemorrhaging residents in search of lower prices and higher salaries on the mainland.
A quick glance at our overall population figures suggests such people have a point. After all, the population of the islands grew dramatically during the 20th century, and it has continued, albeit at a slower pace in recent decades even as the high “price of paradise” soared.
In 1950 there were about a half million people in the islands, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That more than doubled to 1.1 million by 1990, and then to just over 1.2 million in 2000.
In recent years, the population has continued to climb. The 2014 Census estimate of 1.42 million residents marked an increase of a little more than 10,000 from the state’s population the previous year.
It turns out that plenty of residents are leaving Honolulu County, where more than two-thirds of the state’s population resides. Bloomberg Business calculated that Honolulu had the fourth-largest percentage of its residents depart.
Oahu, which is expected to soon cross the threshold of 1 million residents, grew by 4,769 residents from 2013 to 2014, according to the Census.
Some naysayers have used overall population trends to argue that the impact of Hawaii’s cost of living on the middle class is overstated. They say that the many individual stories of financial hardship are largely about poor individual choices and little more.
In this narrative, the experiences of the Yolles-Young family, Mark Heilbron, Valerie Galluzzi, Stan Fichtman, Paul Arinaga, Denise Laitinen, Harvey Meeker, Rod Todorovich, Kevin Luttrell and even former Republican gubernatorial candidate Duke Aiona represent little more than stray anecdotes.
All of this places a recently published analysis by Bloomberg Business in a telling light. The publication’s analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data on the U.S.’ 100 most populous metropolitan areas led them to generate a list of the 20 that saw the greatest out-flow of residents during a one-year period between mid-2013 and mid-2014.
It turns out that plenty of residents are leaving Honolulu County, where more than two-thirds of the state’s population resides. Bloomberg Business calculated that Honolulu had the fourth-largest percentage of its residents depart. In a 12 month period, .74 percent of Honolulu’s residents moved away from one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the nation. For a population of almost 1 million people, that suggests nearly 7,400 departures. Only struggling El Paso and a pair of pricey areas in New York and neighboring Connecticut saw a larger proportion of residents take off.
Like Honolulu, many of the metropolitan areas on the list of 20 are actually growing despite net domestic migration away from them. There are several reasons for this. For one, a smaller number of people from around the U.S. are moving into these often desirable — and expensive — metropolitan areas. But they don’t make up for the residents who leave.
So who compensates for them and boosts the metropolitan populations? People from other countries. On Oahu, some are people who have saved up enough money or arranged well-paying work so they can afford median home price that hover around $700,000 or market rents that, on a basic two-bedroom apartment, cost $1,810.
There are also some foreigners who move here to live less well on similar incomes to some of the low-salaried people who depart. This can include people who are willing to seek out more modest housing arrangements, which includes things like cramming more people into a single dwelling.
But that is an area where Hawaii has less flexibility than most of the mainland. Residents of the islands already tie California for the second largest household size after Utah; our homes are already far more full than in the vast majority of the country.
In the end, the population numbers back other statistics which show that Hawaii remains the nation’s most expensive state, Honolulu is one of the least affordable cities for residents and many locals’ incomes fare terribly in the rental and real estate markets that generate the largest regular costs in their lives.
But, as an optimist might note, at least the view is terrific.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also find Civil Beat’s entire ongoing Living Hawaii series here. And 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.