Hawaii Has Dropped To The Bottom 10 States In Children’s Economic Well-Being - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Deborah Zysman

Deborah Zysman is the executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network Speaks!

Ivette Rodriguez Stern

Ivette Rodriguez Stern is the Hawaii Kids Count Project Director at the Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii Manoa. A social worker by training, she now specializes in macro level practice related to child and family well-being.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, it was getting tougher to raise a family in Hawaii. A new report released in June shows that pre-pandemic, our children’s economic well-being plummeted from 25th to 44th in the nation.

When we talk to caregivers across the state, their stories mirror the data. Summer Yadao is one parent who knows this firsthand. A mother of three, she’s been juggling her full-time job with having to care for her kids. With rising costs and limited public support for families, it’s challenging for families like hers to make ends meet.

“People are working three or four jobs” to pay for groceries, rent, utilities and cell phones — not to mention all the little things for work and school — Summer told us. “It’s depleting to your body, your soul, your ability to care for your children, your ability to function.”

This struggle is reflected in the 2021 KIDS COUNT Data Book, which explores how families in all 50 states are faring and is released annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Collecting and analyzing data from all across the country takes some time, so this report uses data from 2019 — the latest available.

We should all be concerned that Hawaii dropped to the bottom 10 states in children’s economic well-being. It’s a major red flag that the economic situation for families is so precarious, without even taking into account the pandemic’s impact. It took our state’s lowest-income families a decade to recover from the Great Recession. Now, we are once again facing the threat of a greater share of our keiki growing up in economic hardship, which can have long-lasting effects on education and future employment.

Handing out free lunches to children during the pandemic. When schools closed, children and youth who are on the free and reduced lunch program faced even greater food insecurity. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

In this year’s Data Book, Hawaii also dropped from 17th to 26th in overall child well-being rankings. The overall rankings take into account economic well-being, education, health and family and community context.

Two statistics in particular explain our state’s sharp decline in economic well-being. First, Hawaii fell to 49th in the nation for the percentage of children in households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing. In 2019, 38% of children in our state were living in households that were housing cost-burdened. Second, one in 10 teens aged 16 to 19 were not attending school and not working in 2019, placing them at 47th in the nation.

The pandemic is likely to worsen those trends. The warning signs are here already: As of March 2021, 61% of Hawaii households with children reported losing employment income since the start of the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau (in comparison, the national average was 49%). This wide gap highlights the disproportionate economic effect of the pandemic on Hawaii’s families with children.

To create an equitable and expansive recovery, our state’s lawmakers must prioritize investing in children and their parents.

This year’s record was mixed. Legislators saved many essential programs that help families stay safe and provide children a strong start in life from budget cuts. Investments in these programs help our communities thrive. But some programs still saw troubling cuts. Unfortunately, we may see fewer children attending early learning classes because of cuts to the Preschool Open Doors program and charter school early learning programs.

With the knowledge that our children were falling behind the rest of the nation even before the pandemic, our leaders and community must act boldly to prevent their well-being from deteriorating further. Legislators must work to restore and expand child care and early learning programs, boost the Earned Income Tax Credit and enact paid family and sick leave.

“We’re all scared and trying to figure out how to survive,” Summer said. “It’s time to make things more even and balanced.”

When the state invests in keiki, we all see the benefits. It’s not just the right thing to do — it’s the smart thing to do for our economy, community and the future of our state.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Let’s Heed The Wake-Up Call In The Collapse Of Surfside's Condo Tower

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.


About the Authors

Deborah Zysman

Deborah Zysman is the executive director of Hawaii Children’s Action Network Speaks!

Ivette Rodriguez Stern

Ivette Rodriguez Stern is the Hawaii Kids Count Project Director at the Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii Manoa. A social worker by training, she now specializes in macro level practice related to child and family well-being.

Latest Comments (0)

We were bottom 10 in 2019. In pandemic-time, we had the smallest proportion of kids in school in the country. Anybody think we got out of the bottom 10?

LarryS · 1 year ago

Does anybody acknowledge/realize that 95% of these issues/examples are drug-related in some way or form? I'm a volunteer with the Court system and that's what I've seen the past 4 years. There are some well-meaning parents that are useless to their kids. 

Kalama · 1 year ago

This all goes to using housing as investment properties. There is no reason at all to think that the median wage from jobs in the state should somehow be close to the median housing price. So when there are more people and less jobs, there is more homeless and more children at risk. Those that already have housing are in charge of the state and are ignorant of the fact that the more they are indifferent to the poor, the more endangered their children are in the future. The solutions to this are all unpalatable. The state could eminent domain swaths of properties to create more public housing, a great expense initially and yearly for upkeep. But other than requiring airlines to provide the state free tickets to the mainland to use to repatriate homeless (something questionable) what is the state to do? 

tws808 · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.



You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.