With Hawaii’s unemployment rate at 3.2 percent, it is easy to be lulled into thinking that our state’s economy has recovered from the recession. But the reality is that too many of our neighbors have been left behind.

Even our low official unemployment rate masks the struggles of our working population. An alternative measure of unemployment from the Census Bureau, which includes those who looked for a job over the past year as well as part-time workers who can’t find full-time work, is 9.1 percent in Hawaii. That’s one out of 11 of our neighbors who’d like to have a full-time job but haven’t been able to find one.

Four years after first publishing The State of Poverty in Hawaii, Hawaii Appleseed recently revisited this issue in a 2016 edition. We find that our state currently has the sixth-highest rate of poverty in the nation under the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which factors in the cost of living, with more than one in six Hawaii residents living in poverty.

Findings from the report include
Findings from the report show that while one in eight residents faces food insecurity, our state ranks 46th nationally in participation in both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance and School Breakfast programs. Hawaii Appleseed

Alarmingly, the percentage of children in Hawaii living in poverty rose between 2013 and 2014 and remains well above pre-recession levels. Over half of our state’s public school students now come from economically disadvantaged families, an increase of 34 percent since 2008.

Why do hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and children continue to struggle with or teeter at the edge of poverty? One reason is that our state’s workers earn the lowest wages in the country, when adjusted for the cost of living. On top of that, low-income Hawaii residents face a startlingly large tax burden under a state tax structure that actually worsens poverty and inequality.

Since low-income workers spend virtually all of their earnings on goods and services, our general excise tax creates a regressive tax system. That means that the share of income that our lowest-income families pay toward state and local taxes is almost double the share paid by those at the top, and we have the second heaviest tax burden on those in poverty in the nation.

We can see the consequences of high living costs, low wages, and unfair taxes all around us. For the past three years, Hawaii has had the highest rate of homelessness among the states. And while the vast majority of states saw a decrease in homelessness between 2013 and 2014, Hawaii’s rate increased by 9.2 percent.

Why do hundreds of thousands of our neighbors and children continue to struggle with or teeter at the edge of poverty? One reason is that our state’s workers earn the lowest wages in the country, when adjusted for the cost of living.

Hunger is another symptom of poverty. One in eight Hawaii residents faces food insecurity, forcing families to make difficult trade offs. When household budgets run out, it often means cutting back on nutritious food.

Yet Hawaii ranks 46th in the country in participation in both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and the School Breakfast Program. With so many eligible children and adults missing out on these programs, our state is leaving millions of federal dollars on the table, dollars that would help relieve the pressure on the budgets of low-income households.

A hard look at the facts in The State of Poverty in Hawaii demonstrates how much our working families are struggling just to get by. Historically, Hawaii’s progressive legacy recognized that the well-being of our entire community is tied to that of our most vulnerable neighbors. Has this commitment eroded in the face of unequal economic growth?

It’s laudable that our state lawmakers provided needed funds to tackle homelessness and support affordable housing in the legislative session that recently ended, but much more can and must be done. We need to come together and recognize that many of the most pressing problems in our society are caused by or exacerbated by poverty.

There are proven ways to alleviate poverty, such as continuing to raise the minimum wage and relieving the inequity in our tax system. To reduce hunger, Hawaii could do things like improve access to SNAP and adopt new school breakfast models.

Ending poverty is not only the right thing to do, it is also critical to our entire state’s economy. We rise and fall together, and too many in our community are slipping behind — but we can and must find ways to move forward together.

Editor’s note: Read the complete version of Hawaii Appleseed’s The State of Poverty In Hawaii report here.

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