More families that were already struggling financially have fallen below the poverty line in recent years due to rising economic woes prompted by the coronavirus pandemic and inflation, according to a report released Tuesday by the nonprofit Aloha United Way.

The report, which focuses on the working poor who are living paycheck to paycheck, noted that the pandemic has affected households unevenly but said 15% of those surveyed this year were below the poverty line compared with 9% in 2018.

The overall number of families struggling to get by — including those classified as asset limited, income constrained, and employed, otherwise known by the acronym ALICE — also rose to 44% from 42% in 2018.

Officials blamed large forces like the pandemic, particularly with the lifting of federal relief programs, and inflation for the sharp increase in poverty, saying these combined with the state’s high cost of living pushed vulnerable families even further down the financial ladder.

Five people present on a panel
Representatives from Aloha United Way, Bank of Hawaii and the Hawaii Community Foundation discussed the pandemic’s effects on the state’s ALICE population. Ben Angarone/Civil Beat/2022

Households that don’t earn enough to afford housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and other basics fall under the ALICE category, which usually means they don’t qualify for government aid.

The last report was issued a few months after the pandemic began in 2020, but it used data from 2018. Ordinarily, the report is based on federal census data, but the pandemic muddled numbers from 2020’s American Community Survey so Aloha United Way contracted the Honolulu firm Anthology Research to conduct a survey of its own, which took place from July through mid-September of this year.

“These are real people, these are not just statistics on a piece of paper,” said John Fink, president and chief executive officer of Aloha United Way, during a press conference Tuesday.

Fink discussed these results on a panel moderated by Aloha United Way’s Carolyn Hyman, along with Micah Kane, president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Community Foundation; Kimo Carvahlo, vice president of community impact at Aloha United Way; and Peter Ho, president and chief executive officer of the Bank of Hawaii.

A graph showing the trend from 2007 through 2012 of households in poverty and ALICE households
ALICE households are prone to sliding down below the poverty line — especially when large forces like the pandemic and inflation disrupt the economy. Aloha United Way

One event – like a pandemic – can push people into poverty, said Carvahlo, referencing the Great Recession as another example of something with negative and prolonged economic effects. Since 2007, the percentage of Hawaii households under the ALICE threshold has risen from 31% to 44%.

  • 'Struggling To Get By' Special Series

And some demographics were affected more than others. According to the report, a majority of Filipino and Native Hawaiian households fell under the ALICE threshold, as well as a majority of households in Hawaii County and Maui County.

More people have started selling their possessions for cash compared to 2019, as well as turning to friends and family to borrow money. 

With so many people fitting into the ALICE category, the panel said one of the biggest challenges is getting people to realize they can ask for help. 

“There is no shame in that,” said Fink. 

Aloha United Way and Hawaii Community Foundation are partnering with 17 organizations for the next two years, providing funding to programs that would assist ALICE households through things like youth mentorships and policy research.

This year’s minimum wage increase will boost income for some of these households, but the panel also stressed that lowering the cost of living — specifically referencing child care costs — would have huge benefits.

Newly inaugurated Gov. Josh Green has said that he wants to lower the cost of living partially by eliminating the excise tax on things like food and medicine.

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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