Struggling To Get By project badgeA historic budget surplus, strong coordination by advocacy groups and the undeniable fact that many of Hawaii’s families are struggling — both financially and mentally — helped drive big investments in early childhood initiatives this year.

Lawmakers allocated $200 million for preschool facilities, restored nearly $7 million in preschool funding for low-income families, increased access to postnatal care for some of the state’s most vulnerable women and moved to increase teacher pay — a step they hope will make early childhood education a more attractive career for workers. 

The Legislature also approved funding for a new Office of Wellness and Resilience in the governor’s office to help address trauma in the state. The office is being heralded as a significant achievement by early childhood advocates, many of whom are concerned about the lasting impacts of the pandemic on the state’s youngest residents. 

“The pandemic has stressed a lot of families and pushed them over the edge,” said Anisa Wiseman, a program director at The National Alliance on Mental Illness Hawaii.

Hee Jong Chun, right, and other volunteers handing out bags of food as a part of the Serving Aloha event at Central Union Church. They serve over 450 people per week with food donated from the Hawaii Food Bank to help fight against food insecurity here on the island.(Photo: Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat)
Hee Jong Chun, right, and other volunteers hand out bags of food as a part of the Serving Aloha event at Central Union Church in 2021. The pandemic has strained family finances and mental health. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2021

Not all efforts to address the gaps in Hawaii’s safety net were successful, however. Despite a number of bills in the last session that touched on a mental health crisis that has worsened among families during the pandemic, several measures aimed at addressing domestic violence in the state failed to pass. 

The lack of investment in preventing family violence was particularly disappointing, said Kerrie Urosevich of Early Childhood Action Strategy, given the increase in domestic violence in Hawaii during the pandemic and the likelihood that it will continue to be a challenge until families and communities can stabilize from the effects of Covid-19.

And significant relief for the thousands of families struggling to find and pay for quality child care is unlikely to come any time soon, as key questions remain about how the unprecedented $200 million investment in early childhood education facilities will be implemented and how exactly the state will overcome a worker shortage in the field. 

Improving Access To Pre-K

Hawaii has long ranked as one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to public preschool enrollment. Lawmakers had previously set a goal of ensuring preschool access for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state by 2030. Then came the pandemic. 

In 2019, 4% of 4-year-olds in the state were enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program. In the 2020-21 school year, that number dropped back down to 2%. 

At the same time, numerous private child care providers and at least six preschools closed their doors — resulting in a loss of more than 3,600 child care seats, according to testimony by Kamehameha Schools. 

playing room of a school for kids without people
Hawaii has a shortage of both preschool classrooms and early childhood educators. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Lawmakers are trying to address those losses through several measures this year, while also pushing back their goal of preschool access for all to 2032. 

The biggest investment by far is the $200 million appropriation for facilities. 

“One of the most significant barriers that we know still exists is actual space,” said Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House education committee. There simply aren’t enough early learning classrooms in existence. “The $200 million is really meant to be a statement to say that yes, this is still a priority for us.” 

It’s unclear exactly what types of facilities will qualify for the state funding, say Urosevich and Vivian Eto of Hawaii Early Childhood Action Strategy. ECAS was pushing strongly for the bill to benefit both private and publicly-funded classrooms to support preschool expansion in the broadest way possible. 

Woodson said there is flexibility written into the bill, but that its aim is to support public early learning opportunities, such as public pre-K or Head Start — a federally funded program for low-income families. 

But even if Hawaii had plenty of available classroom space, it would still be facing a worker shortage. 

Two bills are aimed at addressing that by requiring annual data collection on the state’s child care workforce and allowing the state teacher’s union to renegotiate teacher compensation

But a bigger investment in workforce development will likely still be needed for the state to significantly expand preschool access.

“It’s great to have facilities, and that $200 million was really critical, however we need staff to be able to fill classrooms,” Urosevich said. “It would have been really nice if we would have been able to pass a bill that would have supported workforce development in addition to the facilities because I think we’re going to have some challenges.”

Addressing Family Trauma

The mental health challenges faced by Hawaii’s youngest children and their parents as the pandemic drags into its third year were at the forefront of many advocacy efforts in the last legislative session. 

Studies have shown that childhood trauma — including physical and emotional abuse, homelessness, and incarceration in the family — can have a significant impact on people’s long term health and lifetime achievement. 

Danny Goya, a trauma-informed care trainer in Hawaii, said he was on a conference call last year during which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discussed whether the pandemic should be added to a list of traumatic experiences — also known as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs — that can be used to measure someone’s risk of struggling later in life. 

Goya is one of many advocates who say that Hawaii’s kids are not alright and that the state has limited time to address the significant impacts of the pandemic on children’s development and mental health. 

“Everyone is talking about learning loss, but there’s a sense of social and emotional intelligence that is also being lost,” Goya said, pointing out that the vast majority of brain development happens in the first five years of a child’s life. 

Pahoa High and Intermediate School banner 'Here to Help', supporting student well being and mental health.
Pahoa High and Intermediate School banner ‘Here to Help’ supports student well being and mental health. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

For children born just before or during the pandemic, that means a critical period of development has been happening under a time of intense stress for many of their parents — and during pandemic measures like masking and social distancing. 

Goya, who is part of the Trauma-Informed Statewide Task Force — a group created by the Legislature in 2021 to figure out how to best implement a trauma-informed approach across state agencies — is hopeful that the new Office of Wellness and Resilience created by SB 2482 will help get kids back on track. 

“What we really need to work on is raising awareness for protective factors that we can put in place that can prevent future ACEs or even mitigate the effects of toxic stress,” Goya said. 

The Trauma-Informed Statewide Task Force is supposed to come up with a set of recommendations for the state by 2024 on how all state agencies can implement a trauma-informed approach to their work. It’s a step that Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz says can help the state produce more well-rounded citizens, but also save taxpayers in the long run by disrupting what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Lawmakers also allotted funding for a family resource pilot program in Waimanalo that is meant to address family stressors. The hope is that linking families to social services, parenting classes and counseling will help prevent childhood trauma on the front end. 

Connecting families to social services is critical, as pandemic-era supports come to an end.

Lawmakers used the budget surplus to make the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for working families permanent, a move that Urosevich calls “a game changer” because it puts money directly into families’ pockets. 

Nearly 100,000 families in Hawaii will be eligible for the credit. But at an average value of $424 a year, it does little to offset the loss of the temporary federal Advanced Earned Income Tax Credit, which gave parents between $250 and $300 a month per child last year. The measure lifted millions out of poverty nationwide before it ended in December of 2021. 

Urosevich is hopeful that lawmakers will build on the tax credit — and also reexamine proposals that failed this year like eliminating the general excise tax on diapers — moving forward. 

“The pandemic shined a light on our safety net gaps and so that’s front and center I think on people’s minds,” Urosevich said. “You start to see where families are falling through the cracks.”

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.

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