Even as Hawaii reels from surging unemployment and a tourism industry shuttered because of COVID-19, two new reports suggest that the worst may be yet to come for many Hawaii residents.

Although different in scope and focus, the reports from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization and Aloha United Way share a common theme: Hawaii households already on the edge, they predict, will likely fall on significantly harder times in late summer as billions of dollars in federal stimulus money runs out.

“We will not understand the full extent of the economic burdens COVID-19 has placed on individuals, families and communities for quite some time as this situation is still unfolding,” John Fink, the Aloha United Way’s president and chief executive, said in a statement released with the report.

But the organization predicts that some 225,000 Hawaii households could find themselves in precarious financial straits by the end of 2020, and those lucky enough to be working still struggling to make ends meet, with little financial cushion.

Volunteers pack pineapples into bags to be loaded into cars at the big food distribution event held at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, HI, Wednesday, May 6, 2020. The city of Honolulu, Hawaii Foodbank, and Hawaii Community Foundation collaborated to put on the event providing food for approximately 4,000 Oahu households. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Food distribution events, such as this one held at Aloha Stadium in May by the city of Honolulu, the Hawaii Foodbank, and Hawaii Community Foundation, could soon be more important as the worst of the COVID-19 crisis sets in later this summer. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii has been hit especially hard by COVID-19 because the state relies heavily on tourism. While Gov. David Ige’s 14-day quarantine order for visitors and stay-at-home measures for residents has kept the spread of the disease largely in check, the measures have also battered the economy.

Like other states, Hawaii has benefitted significantly from a federal stimulus law known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. One provision designed to keep workers on payrolls of small businesses has generated about $2.4 billion for Hawaii firms and nonprofits, and unemployed workers have been getting an extra $600 per week under a different provision.

But the $600 per week goes away for most people on July 31, and the payroll protection money is supposed to run out soon afterward. This poses big problems for those just getting by, people Aloha United Way calls “Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed,” or ALICE.

According to its 2017 ALICE report, a family of four in Hawaii would need a household income of just over $72,000 to cover basic living expenses, like housing, food and transportation. At the time, there were 116,205 families with children in Hawaii and 48.5% of them had income below the ALICE threshold.

The 2020 update released on Thursday shows starker numbers. Working with the Hawaii Data Collaborative, the Aloha United Way sought to estimate the potential impact in the near and longer term to help guide the state’s recovery plan.

The data collaborative’s modeling estimates that, without government stepping in to help, economic shock that resulted from actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 increased the percent of ALICE and below households to 59% from 42% pre-COVID-19. That represents an additional 78,000 vulnerable households on top of the 190,390 that were already struggling.

The report noted state unemployment benefits and CARES Act funds “are keeping most of these households afloat for now.” But it said by the end of 2020, “Hawaii could see 35,000 or more additional households (225,000 total) in an ALICE or below situation.”

The UHERO report looked specifically at what all of this means for housing and implications for renters with incomes around the ALICE level. UHERO concludes that things will get very bad for people when the extra $600 per week runs out in the second half of 2020.

“Thousands of renters will then likely face unsustainable housing burdens,” writes the lead author, Philip Garboden, a UH housing specialist, in the report titled “Estimating the Need for Rental Assistance in Hawaii.”

“Renters in Hawaii are at significant risk due to the economic downturn,” the paper continues. “Roughly 40% of all households in Hawaii rent their homes. They have significantly lower income than homeowners, with a median household income of $57,000 compared with $100,000 for homeowners. Their housing tenure is by nature less secure and their assets more limited.”

Meanwhile, Ige has not announced any plan to open up the state for tourism and his administration’s officials have declined to share any broader recovery plan.

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