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GAO: Boost education in Micronesia, Marshalls

The United States, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands should consider directing more U.S. grant money toward improving education and health care in the two Pacific island nations, according to a report released Monday by Congress’ investigative arm.

Residents of Micronesia and the Marshall islands may feel less need to move to Hawaii, Guam and other parts of the U.S. if they get the health care they need at home and if their children receive an education that helps them achieve, said David Gootnick, director of International Affairs and Trade at the Government Accountability Office.

“It might reduce the migration pressure, reduce the need to migrate,” Gootnick said.

Further, improved health care and education could better prepare Micronesians and Marshallese who choose to move for new lives in the United States.

“There are opportunities before individuals migrate to enhance their ability to be competitive in the job market,” he said.

The two island nations — along with another Pacific island country, the Republic of Palau — are “freely associated” with the U.S. Under international treaties, Washington has promised to provide the nations with financial aid and give their citizens the right to live and work in the U.S. The treaties also give the U.S. full authority for the security of the countries, and citizens of the three nations serve in the U.S. military.

The federal government, however, covers only a fraction of what state and territorial governments spend on social services for Micronesians, Marshallese and Palauans who move to the U.S.

The report by the Government Accountability Office estimates about 56,000 people — or about 25 percent of the total population of the three nations — live in the United States under the treaties.

Since Hawaii and Guam are U.S. lands closest to the islands, they shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden.

The state of Hawaii says its spending on services for the group jumped to $115 million last year from $32 million in 2002. The federal government gives the state just $11 million annually to help pay for the programs.

Earlier this year, Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie told the federal government that his state couldn’t sustain current spending levels without additional help.

“Simply put, the state of Hawaii cannot continue to absorb these costs, which can only become greater in impact on our taxpayers. We cannot continue to slash programs and people in order to uphold a federally imposed mandate,” he wrote in a letter to the U.S. Office of Insular Affairs.

Separate U.S.-Micronesian and U.S.-Marshallese committees oversee how U.S. government grants are used in the two countries. The GAO report recommends that these committees consider steering more money to improving education and health care.

The U.S. gave $75 million to the Federated States of Micronesia last fiscal year for education, health, infrastructure and other programs. To the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the U.S. gave $36 million.

The report also recommends that U.S. agencies improve the way they count migrants. It further suggests that the Interior Department issue guidelines to help places like Hawaii and Guam reliably estimate the impact the migrants are having on their finances.

The Government Accountability Office prepared the report for Congress in response to a request from lawmakers from Hawaii, Arkansas, New Mexico, Guam and American Samoa.

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