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Poverty in Hawaii highest since ’97

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  • STAR-ADVERTISER
    The poverty rate in Hawaii rose to 12.5 percent last year -- with more 156,000 people living below the poverty line.
  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    A homeless man slept on the sidewalk in Waikiki in February as tourists in a trolley watched.

Thousands more Hawaii residents fell into poverty last year, driving up the rate here to its highest level since 1997, Census Bureau figures released yesterday show.

The poverty rate in Hawaii rose to 12.5 percent in 2009 — with more than 156,000 people living below the poverty line — the third consecutive year the state saw growing numbers of impoverished people.

In 2007, 7.5 percent of the state’s population was below the poverty line. In 2008, the number rose to 9.9 percent — or 125,000 people.

The new census estimates show the poverty rate among Hawaii children jumped nearly 5 percentage points last year — to 19 percent — up from 14.3 percent.

The figures, advocates say, illustrate just how much island low-income families are struggling in an economic downturn that has left thousands without jobs and many struggling to pay for necessities.

GROWING NUMBERS

Percentage of people living in poverty

2009: 12.5 percent
2008: 9.9 percent
2007: 7.5 percent
2006: 9.2 percent
2005: 8.6 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

In 2009, a person earning $12,460 or less a year was considered to be under the poverty line in Hawaii. For a family of four, the line was set at $25,360 a year.

Nationally, the overall poverty rate also climbed last year — to 14.3 percent, 43.6 million people, or one in seven Americans.

Advocates locally say they’re bracing for another increase this year, based on the need social service agencies continue to see.

"It’s pretty obvious that a lot more families are hurting," said Daniel de Castro, Salvation Army Hawaii spokesman.

De Castro said the nonprofit is seeing big increases in the number of people seeking food assistance and other types of help.

In February, Salvation Army’s food pantry helped 237 families. Last month, it helped 354.

The jump in the poverty rate comes as service providers raise concerns about state cuts to the social safety net — made up of programs that serve Hawaii’s neediest and are the places of last resort to keep families from going hungry or to help them if they have fallen into homelessness.

"The safety net is there for times like these," said Debbie Shimizu, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers-Hawaii chapter. "It’s not a time to cut services."

The percentage of island residents in poverty hasn’t been as high since 1997, when it was 13.9 percent.

Compared to the rest of the nation, though, people here are faring better.

Nationally, the poverty rate increased last year by 1.1 percentage points, pushing nearly 4 million more people into poverty.

Mississippi had the highest percentage with 23.1 percent and New Hampshire the lowest at 7.8 percent.

In Hawaii, the new figures also showed:

» 17 percent of people earned less than 125 percent of the poverty level, from 14 percent;

» 9.3 percent of residents 65 and older lived below the poverty line, up from 8.3 percent in 2008;

» Nearly 30 percent of households headed by a single woman were in poverty, up from 27.2 percent.

» About 11 percent of working-age residents (from 18 to 64) lived in poverty, up from 8.8 percent.

Alex Santiago, executive director of PHOCUSED, a consortium of social service agencies, called the new figures "alarming."

"It’s just indicative of the challenges that everyone is facing right now," he said.

Santiago also said the numbers bolster the argument for greater attention to ensuring the state’s safety net is protected.

"Needs continue to increase," he said. "We haven’t done an adequate job of shoring up the safety net."

Barbara Kim Stanton, state director for AARP-Hawaii, which has pushed for more social service funding at the Legislature, said the prolonged recession has stretched families past their breaking points.

"It’s like a car driving on fumes," Stanton said. "We have a serious problem."

Stanton said more needs to be done to ensure that the neediest, including children and seniors, are getting help.

 

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