As has been the case for decades, most Americans still consider themselves middle class.

Yes, the Great Recession took many of us down a few pegs — and 10 percent of people across the country redefined themselves to “working class” or “lower class” — but the self-proclaimed middle class remains a majority.

In the islands though, we don’t know what portion of people see themselves as middle class because there don’t seem to be solid measures of residents’ perceptions of their economic situation.

Many local residents who look at their annual household income could understandably conclude that they are in the middle class, given the buying power they would have on most of the mainland.

But some of those same people would be greatly underestimating the impact of Hawaii’s high prices and salaries that don’t keep pace.

The middle-class question casts an interesting light on a recent study indicating that 48 percent of island residents say they live “paycheck-to-paycheck.”

The study, released by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice this week, suggests a lot of people in the islands are living a more precarious existence than is commonly recognized.

“That was definitely the message that we got,” said Gavin Thornton, co-executive director at the Appleseed Center. “To see that (nearly) half of Hawaii residents are living paycheck-to-paycheck is pretty disturbing.”

Woman taking batch of hundred dollar bills. Hands close up
What people get for their money, and their ability to save for the future, are more relevant indicators of their financial situation than how much they earn. iStock

The report entitled, “Study of the Financial Struggles Facing Working Families in Hawaii,” found the situation is worse on neighbor islands where nearly three in five residents said they struggle to make ends meet each month, versus 44 percent on Oahu.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck suggests an inability to set aside money in a state that economists would generally define as being at full employment thanks to a jobless rate of just 3.1 percent.

In such circumstances, it is striking that so many of us are not saving for a personal crisis or for retirement.

The immediate risk is that a sizable economic jolt — a job layoff, a medical bill or even the breakdown of a car or some other unexpected cost — could trigger a downward economic spiral like this one.

Such economic vulnerability isn’t generally felt by people who are comfortably in the middle class. In a time when an array of national economic indicators are moving in a positive direction, it is a sign that the traditional middle-class American Dream remains broken for many people in the islands.

While the nation’s poverty rate was long calculated at a set income level, and elements such as tax bills and work expenses were later incorporated into it, such measures haven’t traditionally been customized to properly suit Hawaii with its unique economy and very high costs.

The more recent Supplemental Poverty Index assesses data on basic necessities like food, shelter, clothing and utilities, and is updated with local housing prices, which are the largest single expense in many people’s lives.

Various recent measures have placed Hawaii’s poverty rate between 15 percent and 18.4 percent in recent years.

But there are signs those numbers underestimate the impact of the cost of living in the islands.

“What this study says to us in part is any little (financial shock) in the lives of so many families can be financially disastrous.” — Gavin Thornton, co-executive director at the Appleseed Center

The definition of being poor, Thornton said, is that you don’t have enough income to meet the basic necessities: housing, adequate nutrition, health care and basic education.

In that light, other details from the telephone survey that QMark Research conducted in late February for the Appleseed Center, are particularly troubling.

A quarter of island residents surveyed said in the last half-decade they have struggled to pay their monthly rent or mortgage payments, and one in five noted challenges in paying their utility bills.

Hawaii — as readers of Civil Beat’s Living Hawaii series know — has the highest rents and electricity prices of any state, while Honolulu has the third-highest housing costs of any American city.

One in four residents surveyed said they didn’t have resources to pay for crucial car repairs, while one in five noted that a health scare had left them struggling to pay medical bills.

All of those numbers represent a larger — often far larger — swath of the population than the poverty line.

More than one in six people said they had trouble meeting very basic needs at certain points in recent years, like having enough food.

Thornton noted that the Appleseed Center works to ensure that people have the resources to allow themselves to be self-sufficient, and that they are finding “the scope of who we are trying to serve is expanding.”

“What this study says to us in part is any little (financial shock) in the lives of so many families can be financially disastrous. You see that with the homeless problem,” said Thornton.

“I think a lot of people have a misconception about who is homeless. They don’t realize that most of the families experiencing homelessness have a steady income; it isn’t drug addiction or mental illness,” he said. “It is that they can’t afford housing. This (report) emphasizes the number of people who are teetering on the edge of what we would call poverty.”

Pedestrians crowd the streets of Honolulu.
Many “middle-class” residents struggle to get by in ways that are more common to poorer people on many parts of the mainland. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Retirement Means Moving

The cost pressures, of course, reach well beyond people who are teetering on the edge of desperation.

Thornton, who moved to Hawaii after law school in 2002, is the sort of professional who would be safely in the middle class in much of the country.

But several years later, after having children and concluding that he wanted to continue working in the non-profit sector, his family decided to move to the town of Sumner, Washington, a 40-minute train ride from Seattle, largely for financial reasons.

There, they were able to do what was unimaginable on Oahu — buy a home.

“I got a huge pay bump and a cost of living cut, and it was amazing,” he said of his non-profit income in Seattle and his small-town Washington cost of living. “I finally felt like I wasn’t a college student for the first time in my life.”

Still, the draw of Hawaii eventually brought him and his family back.

But he’s realistic about the financial side of the equation for people like him, who work for a non-profit, as well as for much of the “middle class.”

“The sensible economic way to deal with this situation is to not live here,” he said.

“You hear people say: ‘You just don’t need much here — it is Hawaii and the natural environment is all you need.’ I get that. But on the other hand, when you are teetering on the edge of financial disaster, that is not good.”

Despite his plan to stay for a while, he knows his situation is not sustainable.

“As of right now, my retirement plan involves moving.”

You can read personal stories about the human impact of Hawaii’s high cost of living on our Connections story page, and then click on the red pen and share your own.

And 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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