We all hear the stories of families who are moving away from Hawaii because they can’t afford to live here. You’d think that with the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, our workers would’ve seen big raises. Yet we have the lowest average wage in the nation, when you adjust for our cost of living.

Something’s out of balance. Hawaii’s workers need a minimum wage that keeps up with our cost of living. A living wage can help stop the flight of good people from their home. Lawmakers can make it happen.

Currently our minimum wage is stuck at $10.10 an hour — or only $21,000 a year for full-time work. We trail 11 other states where the minimum wage is higher than ours —even though we can all agree that the cost of living in Hawaii is effectively the highest in the nation. Seven states where the cost of living is lower than ours have already passed laws to increase their minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Our experience of the last four years of minimum wage increases in Hawaii, as well as the research tell us very clearly that raising the wage will benefit low-wage workers, their families, and the local economy.

As wages rose, Hawaii’s unemployment rate dropped by 52% and the number of restaurant server jobs also rose by 22%. Study after study shows that higher wages are good for businesses’ bottom line. Higher wages improve employee morale, productivity, and loyalty, in turn reducing costly turnover and training.

Capitol looking Mauka showing open floor plan and architectural elements.
Two measures are still alive at the Capitol that would increase Hawaii’s minimum wage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We are not yet at a minimum wage that allows people to survive. The state’s own research shows that a living wage — one on which a single person can meet basic needs — is $17 an hour.

So, what is holding us back from doing what is obviously needed? Perhaps I can dispel the fears peddled by some by sharing a little history.

What Businesses Say

In the 1990s, I was a research assistant on one of the first economic studies of a living wage, in Baltimore. I conducted primary research, pulling relevant documents from government building basements and interviewing the owners of small, local businesses.

This is what those business owners told me:

  • They wanted to pay a higher wage because their employees were like family.
  • They couldn’t just raise their wages on their own because they’d lose out to their competitors.
  • The new law made it a level playing field.
  • The new law allowed them to be the kind of employer they wanted to be: the kind that paid a living wage.

Whose lives would be lifted by a living wage?

Here in Hawaii, Hawaii Appleseed has looked at the effects of boosting our state’s minimum wage to $17 by 2024. Nearly 270,000 workers would immediately see their incomes improve. We have repeatedly heard those who oppose raising the minimum wage call it a “training wage” for teenagers. It isn’t.

The truth is less than 5% of those affected would be teenagers.

But more than 50% would be women. More than 25% would be parents. Three out of four would be 25 or older, And more than half would have at least some college education. These are the bulk of our working families, with children to support.

Over five years, additional wages will total over $1.3 billion. When minimum wage workers earn more, they plow almost all of their additional income back into local businesses, which leads to greater demand for goods and services, as well as job growth.

Smart economic planning says we should enact a living wage sooner rather than later. Plus, voters like policy-makers whose policies rev up the economy. All the data says a living wage will do just that.

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