Hawaii’s population continues to decrease and get older on average, according to federal data released over the past two weeks.

Struggling To Get By project badge

The state’s population fell by more than 10,000 in the year ending July 1, continuing a trend since 2017, said state economist Eugene Tian, citing population estimates released Thursday.

At the same time, Hawaii’s elderly community is growing, and slightly more are living in poverty, even as poverty fell for Hawaii residents overall, according to American Community Survey data collected between 2016 and 2020 and published this month.

The U.S. Census Bureau cautions the new American Community Survey data is less accurate than previous data due to the pandemic.

View looking west of metropolitan Honolulu with Kakaako and the Waianae Mountain range.
Honolulu’s population fell between 2020 and 2021, but some counties like Kauai and Hawaii saw their populations grow. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Kendrick Leong, research and data analysis lead at the Hawaii Data Collaborative, says only about 70% of people replied to the American Community Survey in 2020 compared to more than 80% the previous year, and the respondents skewed wealthier.

That prompted data collectors to supplement the survey responses with property tax records, federal tax data and information from the U.S. Postal Service, Long said.

Justin Hong, an independent research consultant, said the result is that 2016-2020 data “is probably more representative of a time period pre-Covid than it is the Covid period.”

Still, many of the findings match long-known trends. The proportion of people aged 65 and up who live in Hawaii grew by more than 40% between the 2006-2010 American Community Survey and the 2016-2020 survey. On Maui County, that rate was 67.3%.


Kealiʻi Lopez, state director of the American Association of Retired Persons, said Hawaii has long had a fast-aging population. She urged policymakers to “recognize that there’s a lot more that we’re going to have to do as more people become older and become a majority of the population.”

That includes addressing the cost of long-term care, helping people save for retirement and overcoming community opposition to affordable housing for elderly people, said Lopez, who has been lobbying the Legislature on several bills this year.

“Policymakers and such need to stop kicking the can down the road,” Lopez said. “It’s been a long time coming and the community as a whole, the state as a whole, has to start paying attention.”

Kauai And Hawaii Counties Grow

The U.S. Census Bureau last year reported the state’s population grew 7% from 2010 to 2020, but Tian, the state economist, said that the state population has declined since 2017.

Tian thinks the downward trend is due to a combination of fewer births, more deaths and more people moving to the mainland where food and housing is more affordable.

Hawaii's Changinge Economy Special Project Badge

Nationally, birth rates have been on the decline, and the U.S. Census Bureau found that Covid-related deaths contributed to a record number of counties reporting deaths exceeding births.

But not every county saw its population shrink. While Honolulu and Maui counties’ populations fell, Hawaii and Kauai counties’ grew.

That may reflect domestic migration patterns. Remote work allowed some people living on the mainland to move to Hawaii, and even though international migration was down, so many people moved domestically between 2020 and 2021 that more counties nationwide saw their populations grow than shrink.

Economic Changes

The data revealed numerous economic and social shifts for Hawaii residents over the past decade. More people had health insurance between 2016 and 2020 than between 2011 and 2015. Both Medicaid and private health insurance options through the Affordable Care Act marketplace expanded over the past decade.

Hawaii homeowners’ mortgage burdens decreased, which Tian thinks may be related to the lower interest rates that allowed homeowners to refinance.

Poverty fell in every state, including Hawaii, when comparing the 2016-2020 survey data to the 2011-2015 data. But in Hawaii, poverty grew slightly for people over the age of 65, from 7.6% to 8.3%.

Hong, the independent research consultant, thinks that poverty might be higher in the community than reflected in the data because the interrupted data collection in 2020 didn’t fully capture the economic disruption wrought by Covid.

“You’re looking at a period of time that can really mask recent changes,” Hong said of the 2016-2020 data.

Incomes also rose, with nearly 49% of Hawaii families earning $100,000 or more in the 2016-2020 survey compared with 43% in the 2011-2015 survey. The median household income in Hawaii grew from $75,810 in 2011-2015 to $83,173 in 2016-2020.

Tian, the state economist, said Hawaii consistently has among the highest household incomes in the nation but added that the state also has the largest household size, with multiple generations often living under the same roof.

He thinks a better metric for comparison than median household income is per capita income — about $37,000 in the latest data — which is closer to the national average of $35,384.

Click here to explore the new data. 

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

Struggling To Get By” is part of our series on “Hawaii’s Changing Economy” which is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

Something to consider...

Civil Beat is a small, independent newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.

The truth is that less than 2% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.

Will you consider making a tax-deductible gift today?

About the Author