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Politicians must stem isles’ rising poverty rate

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Economic theories, and the proposals that they generate in the long-term search for livelihood solutions, can be debated endlessly. But in the short term, a growing number of people have little time to debate and no time to wait. For them, even the bare essentials — food and shelter that a decent life requires — are lacking.

This is not alarmist rhetoric. It’s the current reality, unveiled in reports nationwide about the rising poverty levels in the wake of the Great Recession. Whether or not the recession itself has technically ended is a question for those economists. The fact that poor people need help should be a call to action.

The U.S. Census Bureau released some dismal statistics on Thursday. The news in Hawaii, repeated to varying degrees across the country, is that more than 156,000 people here now live below the poverty line. That pushes the state to a poverty rate of 12.5 percent, the highest level in 13 years.

For those on the front lines of the war on poverty, the numbers translate into a grim picture, with the struggles of real people at its center. Food bank stores are heavily tapped, the clientele now including people who never thought they’d be there. Honolulu’s growing homeless population is visible to all, many people driven to shelters, parks, empty lots and the front stoop of businesses by joblessness and underemployment.

What can government do, itself standing on the brink of insolvency? It can get its priorities straight. Keeping the safety net intact to help people in need is a core function of the public sector, and it’s clear that the weak economic recovery will not ease that burden anytime soon.

Today marks the start of the general election season, and in the weeks before voters head for the polls Nov. 2, candidates need to address how government should provide services to Hawaii’s neediest most effectively.

Platitudes won’t do — and neither will a general tax hike, which would weigh down the recovery and stifle jobs that could offer more lasting sustenance. Those who hope to serve in elective office must apply mental muscle to the challenge, coming up with plans for reordering how public money is spent.

In the past legislative session, the governor and lawmakers largely dealt with the budgetary crisis with across-the-board cuts. Starting in January, newly elected leaders at the county and state levels must consider ways to restructure government — merging some programs, eliminating others — so that money can be found to support needed social services.

Privatization is an option that should be explored if it means the same public duty can be fulfilled with less cost. And partnerships with nonprofits is a perennial strategy for making taxpayer dollars go further.

This is complicated stuff, not easy fodder for campaigning, and wedge issues such as civil unions have more election-year juice. But it’s critical to come to terms with the hard fact that if poverty is ignored, it breeds more suffering. Children are hardly able to succeed at school and find their way to a better life while their focus is on their next meal and having shelter each night.

This election year has ushered in a wave of political turnover and a chance for fresh leadership. Choosing the right people, the ones with the best ideas, falls to the voters. They need to start asking the right questions.

And candidates, let’s start hearing a few visionary answers.

 

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