About the Author

Will Caron

Will Caron is director of communications at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

We are the third-worst state when it comes to taxing struggling working families.

Larisa and her husband live in Kapahulu on Oahu. Both work full time and earn just over the limit to qualify for SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps.

With two children, they’re living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to keep their keiki fed. Their daughter, Kaimele, suffers from epilepsy, adding additional costs from medical bills.

When Covid hit in 2020, the price of basic necessities like food and gas jumped, pushing strained household budgets to extremes.

Larisa’s family squeaked by, in part, thanks to a temporary expansion of the federal Child Tax Credit that provided a monthly budget boost. While that cushion disappeared at the end of 2021, the cost of living burden hasn’t lessened.

The combination of Hawaii’s highest-in-the-nation cost of living (in particular the cost of housing) and its comparatively low wages is pricing working families like Larisa’s out of their homes. Hawaii’s homelessness and outmigration crises each stem from this unsustainable economic paradigm.

Our state tax code makes the situation worse. A comprehensive analysis of state and local taxes across the country shows that Hawaii is the third-worst state when it comes to taxing struggling working families. Households in the lowest income category pay an effective tax rate of 14.1%, while the richest 1% pay an effective tax rate of 10.1%.

While families like Larisa’s were struggling during the pandemic, the top 20% of households got richer. The conditions that created this inequity — and the cycle of poverty it perpetuates — are the result of policy choices. Better policy choices can reverse the cycle.

(Hawaii Budget and Policy Center/2024)

The Hawaii Legislature has the power to rebalance the tax code, easing the high burden on working families while increasing the share owed by the wealthy and corporations.

This strategy puts more money into the pockets of working families, stimulating our consumer economy.

At the same time, increasing taxes on wealth generates tax revenue for critical investments in our communities from those who can best afford to contribute. 

Tax Code Toolbox

There are multiple policy tools in the tax code toolbox for lawmakers to choose from. One combination that highlights the concept of rebalancing the tax code is that of the Keiki Credit and the capital gains tax.

Capital gains are profits from the sale of assets such as stocks, bonds, art, antiques or real estate.

Hawaii is one of only nine states that taxes capital gains at a rate that is lower than the top-end tax rates on regular income. Since 97% of capital gains income in Hawaii goes to the top 5% richest households (earning $270,000 and above), this is effectively a tax break for the rich.

Taxing capital gains at the same rates as regular income would generate an estimated $87 million in new revenue, and 97% of the new tax burden would fall on those same affluent households. Reinvesting this revenue into working families in the form of a state Child Tax Credit — or Keiki Credit — would ease their cost of living, and stimulate the economy.

The Hawaii Legislature has the power to rebalance the tax code.

Some 162,000 families in Hawaii benefited from the expanded federal Child Tax Credit, and the expansion contributed to an unprecedented 40% decline in the national child poverty rate during the midst of a pandemic-recession.

Children who grow up in financially secure households do better in school, have better health outcomes, and are more likely to be employed, and earn higher wages relative to their poorer peers. Investing in the financial security of children now, pays all kinds of social (and financial) dividends throughout their lifetimes.

In the wake of the lapse of the expanded federal Child Tax Credit, the child poverty rate more than doubled from 5.2 percent to 12.4%. In response, 14 states have stepped up to meet the need with state CTCs. Hawaii should be the 15th.

Since affordable housing is the biggest cost for working families, it’s worth mentioning one more tax code tool: raising taxes on the sale of multimillion dollar mansions. Revenue from the state’s conveyance tax goes directly to financing affordable housing development.

It’s the only designated revenue source for affordable housing construction in our tax code. Targeting this mansion tax at properties that sell for over $4 million means that we are funding affordable housing through fair taxes on the same wealthy investors driving up our home prices.

Because of the expensive challenges facing our state, lawmakers must seize the opportunity to leverage the tax code to lower costs for working families while funding our collective future through more equitable taxes on wealth.

Doing so moves us all toward a sustainable future in which Hawaii’s people are well-cared for, our communities have the resources needed to overcome big challenges, our working families can support our economy, and our keiki are set up to succeed.

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About the Author

Will Caron

Will Caron is director of communications at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

Latest Comments (0)

Adopt the federal standard deduction.

norman · 4 weeks ago

They are people struggling at all levels. As another person pointed out: If you own a home in Hawaii, you are a millionaire....and that is even if the paint is falling off and there is puka in the roof. However, this family, is like so many families. TO me, they should not have have to pay out of pocket for their child's epilepsy, but they likely do. Then their work. There is a real strangle hold on employment and industries that could pay more for our residents. Don't tell me we NEED tourism because we don't. Most of the tourist dollars leave the state. We don't support industries like tech hardly at all which COULD give more well paying jobs. Then this family is probably paying so much for housing. We have to have a serious plan for residents like these that work and are raising a family that are on the edge. There has to be a more secure way for them to have housing at a reasonable cost. And it is not necessarily the tax code. Although I strongly support ending GE tax collections on food and medicine.

Mememalia · 4 weeks ago

As they say, statistics don't lie, but statisticians are darn liars. It's all in how you present them. They say whatever you want them to say.

justsaying · 4 weeks ago

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