Eight years after the start of the worst economic crisis in modern American history, incomes in the islands are rising and unemployment is just 3.2 percent, which is scratching at modern lows for Hawaii.

A sharp drop in the price of oil has resulted in the cheapest gasoline and the least expensive electricity that we’ve seen in years.

Yet those of us in the middle class can be forgiven for feeling like we’re not doing any better than we were before the Great Recession.

In the big picture, a lot of people have treaded water financially, but the water has gotten deeper. An array of recently released studies collectively suggests that, despite the remarkable rebound in the jobs market and recent salary increases, we have actually lost ground over the last decade or so on several key fronts.

Ben Franklin $100 bill money

Residents’ incomes haven’t kept up with the rising cost of living, especially housing costs, and our credit card and mortgage debts remain among the highest in the country. The result is that Hawaii residents are, economically speaking, among the most vulnerable in the nation when it comes to the share of income we spend on housing.

The situation is particularly grave for the next generation of adults who are just entering the job market, especially if they have any hope of ever affording to live independently in the islands.

A primary sign of slippage is that, while Honolulu residents’ incomes rose 26.6 percent from 2005 to 2015, the cost of living rose 30.4 percent, according to the consumer finance website NerdWallet.

In the big picture, a lot of people have treaded water financially, but the water has gotten deeper.

Losing 3.8 percent of our buying power in the space of a decade is demoralizing, but worse, as the finance site’s analysis notes, declining income generally results in people borrowing more money to compensate.

So it is perhaps logical that island residents have the second largest credit card debt among all states, after Alaskans; the typical Hawaii resident owes $4,251.24.

Credit card debt is particularly bad because it comes with some of the highest interest rates you can get from institutional lenders, and it saps income that could be used far more productively.

Hawaii residents also owe a lot to the banks for our homes. Our average mortgage debt is $236,125, placing us second after California — another place with a soaring real estate market.

Mortgage debt can amount to a good mid- or long-term investment — as long as homeowners can afford their homes and they aren’t financially underwater. For one, it can allow people to increase their net worth over time.

The downside, though, is that larger mortgages usually translate into higher rents on residential properties.

A just-released analysis of U.S. Census data from 2007 until 2014 from the housing site ApartmentList found that while there are signs that renters nationally have enjoyed an improved situation since 2011, as of 2015 that didn’t amount to a full recovery from the recession.

View of buildings near Piikoi Street and King Street areas featuring walk up apartments. ERIC PAPE STORY. 13 NOV 2014. photograph by Cory Lum.
Honolulu renters are among the most “cost burdened” in the nation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In particular, the share of renters who face a “cost burden” — which refers to the financial handicaps faced by tenants who spend at least 30 percent of their income on rent — remains higher than it was in 2007 in most states.

New construction is expected to eventually help respond to surging rental demand in many cities, but until it does, national housing experts largely expect rents to continue to rise to cover higher mortgages.

Nearly three in five renters in the islands are considered by economic analysts to be particularly vulnerable to economic shocks like a health crisis, a layoff or other unexpected financial expenses.

In the islands, where little new housing has reached the market in recent years, the percentage of renters who face cost burdens rose from 53 percent in 2007 to nearly 58 percent in 2014, according to ApartmentList’s analysis.

That means nearly three in five renters in the islands are considered by economic analysts to be particularly vulnerable to economic shocks like a health crisis, a layoff or other unexpected financial expenses.

That 4 percent increase in the percentage of Hawaii residents enduring cost burdens was nearly double the average increase nationally. Overall, the percentage of cost-burdened renters in the islands is second among all states, barely below first-place Florida.

Perhaps more problematic is that more than 30 percent of all renters in the islands spend more than half of their income on rent, which places them in an especially tenuous financial position.

Numerous studies highlight the fact that cost-burdened people are far less likely to have access to good health care, get into a position to buy a home and accrue wealth, afford care for their parents, or be able to save for their children’s education or their own retirement.

Given the cost of living and salary trends in Hawaii, its capital isn’t a very hospitable place to start a career.

A recent examination of the best and worst places to find a job by the personal finance website WalletHub found that workers entering the job market face a huge obstacle: Honolulu has the least affordable housing out of the nation’s 150 largest job markets when the cost of living is factored in.

That is a big part of why Honolulu also came in at the bottom of the list in the starting-salary metric — again, when the cost of living is factored in. It was even worse than Brownsville, Texas, where the median household income is less than half of Honolulu’s.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know, for our Connections section? If so, drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

You can also find Civil Beat’s entire ongoing Living Hawaii series here.

And you can take part in a 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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