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I Had to Re-acclimate to Hawaii’s High Prices
When it comes to the cost of living in the islands, many locals play the “adjustment game.” Maybe it is a sign that the state needs to make some adjustments of its own.

About the Author

  • Albert Lanier
    Albert Lanier has been a writer, freelance journalist and ghostwriter for 20 years. He has previously contributed to Honolulu Weekly, Pacific Business News, Hawaii Magazine, Puget Sound Business Journal and Asianweek. Lanier also worked briefly as a reporter for The Molokai Dispatch before returning to Oahu where he currently resides.

A major narrative about Hawaii’s economy revolves around the lack of employment and educational opportunities, as well as the high cost of living.

These factors conspire to drive people out of Hawaii. Often referred to as the “brain drain,” we witness an exodus of skilled people from the islands cities toward the mainland. Is this narrative accurate overall? Yes, no question.

But there is another narrative that has largely been ignored. It revolves around locals who have lived and worked on the mainland, but who eventually do return to Hawaii. I am part of this group.

I am a writer and freelance journalist by profession. I have lived and worked in Seattle and Los Angeles. The first time I moved to the mainland was in the mid-1990. The second time was in the last decade.

Albert Lanier enjoys life outdoors

Lanier eventually moved back to Oahu, where he took notice of the sometimes large price variations on different islands.

Courtesy of Albert Lanier

Those experiences taught me about what I refer to as “the adjustment game,” although it might be better to call it the readjustment game. It isn’t just about getting used to different weather, billboards or chilly winds. It is about re-acclimating to different costs and prices, not to mention how your work is valued.

A few years ago, after working in LA and then moving briefly to Seattle, I was offered an intriguing temporary reporting position at the newspaper on Molokai. I took it.

On Molokai, it became clear that the cost of different items and services varied wildly. At that time, gasoline cost more than $5 a gallon, which was even more than on Oahu. It was surely some of the most expensive gasoline in the country. Common items like a TV dinner cost $5, which might have been $4 or less on Oahu, and cheaper on the mainland of course. Like a lot of people, I would be interested in knowing exactly why. Less common items can cost a lot more because a single seller might be the only one offering them. That can be like having a mini-monopoly. But a lot of things probably play into those price variations.

I bring up such prices on Molokai to highlight a phenomenon that sometimes gets lost in the cost of living discussion. On neighbor islands where there are fewer economic opportunities and generally lower incomes, prices are often even higher than on Oahu.

When I later returned from Molokai to Honolulu, I continued to play the adjustment game, but in different ways. I came back to an island with a fairly elaborate transit system, but it was expensive. Just as traveling between islands in a state made up of islands seems unnecessarily costly, travel on Oahu is too. One very basic example: In LA, it was cheaper to take the recently-built public transport. Today, the Metro Train in Los Angeles costs $1.75 for a one-way trip. In Honolulu, it is $2.50.

In any discussion of Hawaii’s high cost of living, people who have left and returned invariably want to know why things are the way they are.

Food is another crucial thing that seems oddly overpriced, especially when you have to eat near work. When I lived in LA, I could go into Hollywood and choose from reasonably priced menu items. On Hollywood and Vine, I’d eat a submarine sandwich and a drink for less than $5. I would be hard pressed to find a similar kind of lunch deal on Oahu.

It might sound like I am nitpicking, but these kinds of everyday factors require people to change their mindset when they come home to the islands. After five years back home, these things still strike me. In any discussion of Hawaii’s high cost of living, people who have left and returned invariably want to know why things are the way they are.

They — we — already know that these prices can be different and that it shouldn’t require so much of our hourly labor to pay these costs. We also know that it is possible to earn more for the work that we do. Instead of simply accepting things as they are, we naturally ask why they can’t be done differently.

It also seems strange to me that the “brain drain” gets so much more attention. The story of locals who have lived and worked elsewhere before returning home to Hawaii should be part of the discussion.

After all, not everyone who leaves Hawaii stays put where they go. Some people return with helpful perspectives, not only about the differences in weather or food or people’s behavior, but also about salaries, wages, housing prices and rents, as well as educational and employment opportunities.

Albert Lanier on Oahu

Courtesy of Albert Lanier

I know this not just because of my own experiences living on the West Coast, but also from conversations with people from Hawaii who have lived elsewhere.

It isn’t that such people have all the answers, or “know better” than people who have remained in Hawaii, it is that, by contrasting how things are done here with other places, we might find some room to improve.

People don’t need to leave to know that things can be done differently of course, whether in terms of policy or job creation, but the contrasts for people who have lived elsewhere make it that much more obvious.

The time has come to stop thinking that the “same old, same old” will work 100 percent of the time in Hawaii because it has “always been that way” or “that’s the way things are done.”

And maybe it is time for the powers that be in the islands to contemplate what we can learn from other places to make Hawaii into more of the Hawaii that it should be.

That would be some adjustment.

Do you have a story about the human impact of the cost of living in the islands, whether about you or someone you know? If so, click on the red pencil button to share it through Connections, or drop me a note at epape@civilbeat.com.

And join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation about this story, or to discuss broader practical and political solutions for the islands.