Hawaii has the highest statewide cost of living in the U.S. Our state also has the nation’s biggest discrepancy between our cost of living and average wages, and it is no coincidence that we have the worst homeless problem in the nation.

Poverty and homelessness are a growing blight on our society, and threaten not only our own enjoyment of our island lifestyle, but increasingly affect our image among visitors, which is our economic lifeblood.

But more importantly, we cannot in good conscience allow so many to live in poverty amidst our affluence.

Homeless King Street Smith Street covered with blanket squatting. 17 feb 2017
A homeless person earlier this month found a spot near the corner of Smith and King streets. Raising the minimum wage in Hawaii may help keep some from falling into homelessness. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Many proposals aim to incrementally address poverty and homelessness, and all are needed pieces to the puzzle. Affordable housing, low income tax relief, a state EITC, expanded medicare and other efforts are welcome, but will never bring resolution to this crisis at the pace we are going.

There is one way we can virtually solve poverty and homelessness that is entirely in our power to do: a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Other places have implemented this, with great benefit to their economy. These places share a high cost of living with our state. In these locales, including NYC, Seattle, and San Francisco, we did not see a loss of jobs, and the increase in circulating money has benefitted almost everyone concerned.

There are arguments against increasing our minimum wage. Usually they come from business interests and chambers of commerce. As an employer of over 200 people, I understand the concerns of employers and businesses, and hope to address these.

Some say it will harm business by reducing profitability. Others say it will result in higher prices, or layoffs. Let’s look at these assumptions.

If everyone raises wages, there’s much more money in circulation. This results in more consumer spending and a better overall economy. Let’s assume that some businesses will have to raise prices. Labor is only one part of a business’s costs, and will have a minimal effect on prices. If the price of lunch goes up 1 percent to 5 percent, but everyone can now afford to buy it, that is a benefit to all.

When a business pays less than a living wage, there are consequences affecting the business as well as society. An employee who cannot afford his/her life is an employee that is stressed, less healthy, and always looking for a better paying job. A well-paid employee is more motivated, loyal, and stable. These result in a better staff which can help the business in tangible and subtle ways.

If a $15 minimum wage raises prices slightly, but results in a society in which we all benefit and virtually solves our serious growing poverty crisis, is that not worth doing?

I do not believe a higher minimum wage will result in layoffs. We have not seen this in areas that raised the minimums, so there is no evidence this is true. In fact such areas have seen job growth, not shrinkage.

In some rare cases, there may be fewer jobs in a business. Consider a business with three employees at our current minimum wage, soon to be $10 an hour. This business is paying $30 an hour, and can afford no more. Typically, at least one of the workers is new, since workers at this pay rate are always seeking new jobs in hope of advancement or better pay. Their motivation and loyalty to the company is minimal.

Now consider this business has two employees at $15 an hour – still costing the business $30 an hour total. These employees will be more stable, thus better trained and more efficient. They are more motivated, loyal and less likely to be seeking new employment.

I suggest the business is better off with well paid employees who can afford their life. They are happier, healthier, and better able to contribute the success of the business.

In most cases, with more motivated, stable employees, the business is better able to grow and will not need to reduce jobs, but will grow because of a better staff.

When a business pays a living wage, we all win. When a business pays less than a living wage, our government is burdened by the costs of assistance, including food stamps, poor community health, emergency room medical treatments, and the many costs of homelessness.

A living wage places the costs of living on the employer, where it should be, and reduces the costs of government. Higher wages bring much more money into the government coffers through more income taxes, while reducing the many government costs of poverty.

Each year we agonize over how to pay for essential services without raising taxes. This is the solution for our government finances as well as for businesses.

If a $15 minimum wage raises prices slightly, but results in a society in which we all benefit and virtually solves our serious growing poverty crisis, is that not worth doing? How can we make excuses for not solving poverty when it is indeed in our power, right now, to do so?

The bigger issue is moral, not economic. Is it not an employer’s civic and moral duty to pay a living wage? How can it be pono for a business to profit while its staff, the human beings who make up the business, do without basics?

It is an illusion for a business to put such burdens on workers, ignore the massive cost to society and government, and claim to be successful. Success is when we all benefit and grow together. We are all in the same boat – let’s care about all our people.

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