Incomes are slightly up, rents are still sky-high and more families are in poverty in Hawaii compared to 2016.

That’s according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week. The data from the 2017 American Community Survey was collected over 12 months last year.

The survey offers a snapshot of demographics and economics in the country’s only island state. It’s a deluge of information that covers everything from multigenerational households — Hawaii still ranks No. 1 — to topics like education, joblessness and race and ethnicity.

Here are some of the highlights:

Housing Is Still Really Expensive

The median family income in Hawaii was $91,460 last year, a 3 percent increase from 2016. It wasn’t a statistically significant increase but still made Hawaii rank sixth highest in the nation.

But higher incomes are offset by higher costs, particularly housing. The Aloha State has had the highest median home value nationwide since 2007. Home values in Hawaii continue to grow — the 2017 median home value was $617,400, a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year.

Noreen Mokuau UH

Mortgages have stayed about the same — $2,337 — but Hawaii residents still bear the third highest mortgage cost.

“I have colleagues who live in some place in Texas and they can buy homes for $300,000, beautiful homes that their children can grow up in,” says Noreen Mokuau, professor and dean of the University of Hawaii School of Social Work. “I don’t know what $300,000 would buy… in Hawaii.”

Last week the median home price in Honolulu hit a record high of $810,000 according to data from the Honolulu Board of Realtors that looked only at sales in August 2018.

Renters aren’t much better off. The ACS data showed that renters in Hawaii were paying a median rent of $1,573, the highest in the nation. Monthly housing costs for renter-occupied units grew 4.4 percent compared to 2016 adjusted for inflation.

That doesn’t take into account the cost of food, fuel and other goods and services, Mokuau says. Even though incomes in Hawaii may be high relative to other states, “it’s hard for families here.”

Poverty Worse Than It Appears

Hawaii’s poverty rate stayed about the same — 9.5 percent — but the percentage of impoverished families grew to 7.4 percent from 6 percent.

That’s not very high compared to other states. But Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, says that the ACS poverty rate underestimates the actual number of people in poverty.

People sleep with their belongings along South King Street across from Old Stadium Park after city officials closed park until November.
People sleep with their belongings along South King Street across from Old Stadium Park after city officials closed the park until November. Homelessness is a big problem in Hawaii, reflecting poverty along with other social problems. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There’s another data point called the Supplemental Poverty Measure that takes into account the cost of living, taxes and government benefits.

Between 2015 and 2017, Hawaii’s supplemental poverty rate was 15 percent, the 10th-worst rate in the nation.

Woo says this is the third-largest jump in the nation and pushes the number of impoverished people in poverty in Hawaii above 200,000.

She maintains it’s a more accurate measure. “It’s just something that can’t be repeated enough times,” she says.

Ethnic Inequality Persists

The data continues to show large disparities depending on race and ethnicity. A much smaller percentage of Hawaii’s East Asian communities face poverty compared to Pacific Islander communities.

But University of Hawaii professors say it’s hard to figure out exactly what those disparities are with such limited data. The 12-month surveys don’t provide the level of detail that may be available in five-year surveys, and even those are often missing data.

Jonathan Okamura is a UH professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies. University of Hawaii

Jonathan Okamura of the UH Department of Ethnic Studies has been studying inequality for years. He said the 2017 ACS data doesn’t include a category for people who are Native Hawaiian alone or in combination with other races, and that makes it hard for him to conduct the type of analysis he’s previously done.

In general, data aggregation is a challenge. “There are very diverse groups that are being collapsed into these categories,” Okamura says.

Mokuau suggested disaggregating Pacific Islanders would also be useful. The poverty rate for Native Hawaiians alone is 11 percent but when you add in “other Pacific Islanders” the rate jumps to 15 percent.

“The more accurate we are in identifying the subsets of people living in Hawaii the better my profession is in being about to construct interventions that really help and really assess their needs accurately,” Mokuau says.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes. And you can still comment on stories on our Facebook page.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author