Hawaii is a wonderful place to raise kids — unless it’s a family that’s teetering on the financial edge or has fallen into poverty.
For those on the lower rungs of the income ladder, the path to prosperity can seem hopelessly out of reach. Parents scraping for enough to pay the rent or buy food can lose the motivation and means to prepare their kids for something better. And for them, the recent economic recovery hasn’t yielded much help, which means a re-examination of the state’s safety net is needed.
Last week’s disheartening report on the status of Hawaii’s children presents a dim picture, even though Hawaii’s poverty figures put the state only in the middle of the pack. That’s because the high cost of living for island residents puts many more families, living a paycheck away from homelessness, at risk if there’s any deterioration of conditions.
And conditions have deteriorated, according to the University of Hawaii Center on the Family. The research agency, which frequently provides data guiding the state’s policymakers, gathered the data as part of the annual Kids Count, compiled nationally by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The study examines the most current figures from 2011, and the bottom line is clear. In the past year, the proportion of Hawaii children living in poverty has ticked up from 14 percent to around 17 percent, and 32 percent of children now live in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment — up from 30 percent in 2010. By comparison, the nation as a whole showed slight improvement in both those measures over the same period.
What this means is that Hawaii lawmakers have to reexamine the state’s safety net and make sure the kids have a fighting chance to escape their parents’ circumstances.
Economic disadvantage has a way of following the poor well beyond childhood, said Ivette Rodriguez Stern, the junior specialist at the UH center in charge of its Kids Count project. Poor children have increased chances of teen pregnancy, dropping out of school and unemployment.
State Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, who chairs the Human Services Committee, tracks other indicators as well. For example, she cited the 20 percent of Hawaii’s people who qualify for Medicaid, the health-care plan for the lower-income population. That’s the highest rate in the nation, she said.
There are some brighter spots in the Kids Count data, including a lower teen pregnancy rate, educational improvements in preschool enrollments and proficiency in fourth-grade reading and eighth grade math. But those academic performance boosts still leave Hawaii kids lagging behind the nation, and the mounting poverty problem is not going to help matters there.
Here are a few of the other points from the study:
» The group of teens not in school and not working is up from 9 percent in 2008 to 11 percent in 2011.
» The proportion of children living in single-parent families has grown from 27 percent in 2005 to 31 percent six years later.
» The most startling change is in the count of children living in households with a high housing cost burden. That was 37 percent in 2005, and 46 percent in 2011.
This last point is why, Chun Oakland said, lawmakers will refocus efforts to encourage affordable housing in the coming session, making bond financing more available to private development. She referenced a recent state study by the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. indicating that 50,000 new units are needed in the next four years, more than half in the affordable range.
This push will be critical, she rightly said, because once a family topples into homelessness, the outcomes for children become dire.
Some advances in children’s welfare have been made in the last session, including voluntary foster-home support for youth up to age 21. Chun Oakland said lawmakers have protected state matching funds to draw down federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families regardless of the budgetary woes. The Hawaii Public Housing Authority also deserves credit for radically reducing the waiting time for public housing units to turn over.
Despite such steps taken, it’s plain that more of Hawaii’s children are facing poverty than ever before. The best thing that can happen for them is the stability that comes from employment for their parents, so economic development measures are key.
But in the meantime, all kids deserve at least a chance to surmount poor financial circumstances, and the community should give them the support they need.