About 2,200 more children in Hawaii struggled with anxiety and depression in 2020 – a 23% increase compared with 2016, according to a nationwide study released Monday.

The 2022 Kids Count Data Book, which tracks state trends regarding children, found that Hawaii ranked in the lowest third of the United States when it comes to the educational (35th) and economic (34th) well-being of children, who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic because of the high unemployment in the islands at the time.

The report was issued ahead of Hawaii’s primary on Saturday, and advocates said they hoped policymakers and candidates were paying attention.

“It’s good timing because kids are just coming back to school in Hawaii, and just to remind leaders that we should focus not just on catching kids up academically, but making sure they’re OK with their mental health,” Nicole Woo, director of research and economic policy at Hawaii Children’s Action Network, said in an interview.

“We all know the pandemic’s been really hard on our children,” Woo added. “They couldn’t go to school for a year, a lot of activities were canceled and they couldn’t see their friends.” The Hawaii Children’s Action Network was a state partner for the report.

Hokulani Elementary School kids. No ID.
Hawaii ranked one of the lowest in the nation for the educational and economic well-being of children. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The annual survey, published by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked states according to 16 indicators in four categories. The island state fared better in terms of the rankings for health (fifth) and family and community (15th), according to the report, which measured data from 2016 to 2020 in order to gauge the effects of the pandemic.

Hawaii got an overall ranking of 22nd, up four notches from the 2021 report, which compared statistics from 2010 to 2019. But advocates expressed particular concern about mental health as the report estimated that 5.9% children ages 3 to 17 had anxiety or depression in 2020, compared with 4.8% in 2016.

David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of the nonprofit HawaiiKidsCan, said he wasn’t surprised at the report’s findings.

“We’re set up for a perfect storm of challenges,” Sun-Miyashiro said. “Even pre-pandemic, we weren’t necessarily doing the best in terms of taking care of our kids and families.”

The report noted that Hawaii kids suffered disproportionately during the early stages of the pandemic amid school closures and restrictions that essentially shut down the state’s main tourist industry, leading to record-high unemployment.

Ivette Stern of the Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii said the report raises alarm.

“We know from research that children growing up in families that are experiencing economic hardship feel the weight of that stress,” Stern said. “That’s why we absolutely need to support Hawaii’s families, reach economic security and improve access.”

Hawaii was in the bottom 10 states for several key measures, including findings that 72% of eighth graders scored below proficient math levels, some 9% of teenagers aged 16 to 19 didn’t go to school or work and 37% of all children in the state lived in families that spent more than a third of their income on housing.

Woo said there were past legislative efforts to make sure school psychologists are credentialed and paid well, but those measures failed. She added that her organization would support those bills again if they’re introduced next year.

“Anything that our Legislature, our governor, our county councils can do to make sure that parents can afford their housing and make ends meet, that will help release the mental stress on children and make sure that they’re able to thrive academically,” she added.

With a budget surplus, Hawaii legislators allocated billions of dollars to initiatives aimed at helping families bear the high cost of living in the state, and the governor signed a law providing $100-$300 in tax rebates.

But advocates said more needs to be done.

Sun-Miyashiro welcomed the tax rebates approved this year but said he would like to see it go up to $1,000 for families in need.

“I think as we see from this ranking, we can’t just rely on the status quo,” he said.

“There’s a a lot of good work underway in the state right now,” he continued. “A lot of schools are working hard around career pathways and career readiness opportunities for students, but there’s definitely a lot of work to do.”

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.

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