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Native Hawaiians living in the islands still have a relatively high poverty rate even though they’re employed at about the same rate as the state’s total population.
That’s according to census data released last week from the American Community Survey covering 2017.
Hawaii’s overall poverty rate and poverty among Native Hawaiians has improved over the last five years. But the 2017 data continues to reflect a longtime trend of higher-than-average poverty among Hawaii’s indigenous community.
In 2017, 7.4 percent of all families in Hawaii were impoverished. But the rate for Native Hawaiians was 11.3 percent.
This story focuses on ACS data for 2017 that refers to less than 90,000 state residents who self-identified as “Native Hawaiian alone.” The data is limited by the small sample size and the fact that it only covers one year.
The American Fact Finder, the online tool for parsing ACS data, does not break out Native Hawaiians in combination with other races for the year 2017. It is possible to view data that combines Native Hawaiians with other Pacific Islanders — including but not limited to Samoans, Tongans and immigrants from Micronesia — but this results in a noticeably higher poverty rate.
The poverty rate for all Hawaii residents was 9.5 percent, while the rate for Native Hawaiians was 13.5 percent.
The unemployment rate for Native Hawaiians — 4 percent — was actually lower than the state rate of 4.2 percent, although they were within the margin of error.
Noreen Mokuau, professor and dean of the University of Hawaii School of Social Work, says the poverty rate for Native Hawaiian is tied to lower education levels and lower wages.
In 2017, 11.5 percent of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii had graduated from college compared to nearly 22 percent of the state population. Fewer than 5 percent of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii had a graduate or professional degree, less than half of the statewide rate.
Native Hawaiians also aren’t earning as much as many other communities in Hawaii. Their median household income in 2017 was $66,317 compared with $77,765 statewide. The percentage of Native Hawaiian workers in “management, business, science, and arts occupations” occupations was only about 22 percent, compared with more than 34 percent statewide.
“You may have a job, but you’re not paid enough. You work hard but you have a large number of kids,” Mokuau says. “For those of us living in a high-cost state it looks like we’re even more disadvantaged.”
The poverty rate in the ACS doesn’t take into account the high cost of living in Hawaii.
“You’d think having a full-time job would keep you out of homelessness but that’s not the case,” says Jonathan Okamura, professor in Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii.
The 2017 poverty data is only the latest iteration of a longstanding problem. Katherine Tibbetts from the Lilioukalani Trust says during the recession, people lost second or third jobs and may have been underemployed rather than unemployed.
“If you look at trends in income over time it’s reflective of that loss,” she says.
Tibbetts says it’s important to look at the gap between people living above the poverty rate but below what’s considered a living wage.
But wages and education aren’t the only measure for community well-being. At a recent conference, Tibbetts said Hawaiian community leaders discussed how cultural identity, healthy and productive land and self-determination are among other ways to evaluate well-being from a Hawaiian perspective.
Still, she says it’s important to pay attention to wages, education and poverty levels.
Jonathan Osorio, dean of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at UH, says poverty in the Native Hawaiian community goes back to the 1893 overthrow over the Hawaiian Kingdom that imposed a territorial government backed by sugar plantation owners and resulted in the loss of Hawaiian lands.
He doesn’t see the problem changing anytime soon.
“In the end unless we can actually have a real and unimpeded access to the lands that belonged to our chiefs and belonged to our government, I don’t see how we break this cycle of poverty,” Osorio says. “The policy of the Territory and the policy of the State of Hawaii is to keep those lands out of our hands and out of our control.”
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