Nearly half of Hawaii residents say they are living paycheck to paycheck, according to a poll released Monday by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, which says the research underscores the need for tax reform measures that will aid those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
When broken down by ethnicity, the number of residents living month to month shoots up to 78 percent for Filipinos and 71 percent for Native Hawaiians.
A significant percentage of local residents are also having a hard time covering the basics. In the past five years, 1 in 4 residents said, they’ve worried about how they are going to make their monthly rent or mortgage payment, while 1 in 5 residents said they’ve struggled to pay their utility bills.
Some 17 percent of those polled said they have struggled at some point in the past five years to provide food for themselves or their families.
The poll numbers also underscore the financial precariousness of households living month to month when they are hit with unexpected expenses in one of the most expensive states in the country.
For example, 25 percent of respondents said that they didn’t have enough money to repair their car after it broke down, while 20 percent of respondents said that a health crisis had left them unsure of how they were going to cover their medical bills.
William Morrison, a Web and media support specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who was not part of the study, said that the poll reflected his financial struggles.
“I get my rent and utilities paid for, no problem,” he said. “But I don’t have any nest egg or something to fall back on if something major happens.”
Close to three-quarters of his take-home pay goes to rent and utilities. He said he worries most about a family member on the mainland having an emergency, one of his two dogs getting sick or his car breaking down.
Still, he considers himself lucky, having a good job and family to rely on.
“I always wondered how people who don’t have that cope mentally, not having that security of a family in the background,” he said. “Those are the people I worry about. They don’t have a lifeline.”
The phone poll of 503 residents throughout the state was conducted during the last two weeks of February by QMark Research for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, a nonprofit law firm that advocates on behalf of low-income residents.
|PERSONAL ECONOMIC STRUGGLES
A poll commissioned by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice reveals the financial struggles that many residents in the islands face.
Hawaii residents were asked whether they faced any of the following situations in the past five years:
Car breakdown and you didn’t have enough money to repair it
Problems paying your rent or mortgage
Problems paying your utilities
Health Crisis for a family member you weren’t sure how to pay
Providing enough food for yourself and your family
“This research shows how, even as Hawaii recovers from the recession, thousands of our neighbors struggle day to day to support themselves and their families,” said Gavin Thornton, co-executive director of the law firm, in a news release.
Hawaii Appleseed says that Hawaii is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to taxing low-income residents and that bills before the Legislature this year could help ease the burden.
“Most states don’t even tax people who are under the poverty line,” said Nicole Woo, a senior policy analyst for the law firm.
State and county tax policies have also left the poor paying a higher share of their income than the wealthiest residents, according to a 2015 study conducted by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan research organization based in Washington, D.C.
Hawaii’s poorest taxpayers paid the largest share of their income in taxes: 13.4 percent. By comparison, households with income in the top 1 percent, or those earning more than $375,000, paid only 7 percent of their income in taxes.
Local tax reform bills
The QMark study was conducted to support the law firm’s efforts to push through a State Earned Income Tax Credit, designed to provide financial relief to low-income workers through a refundable tax credit. The bill died last month, however, after Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Jill Tokuda (D, Kailua-Kaneohe) shelved it, noting concerns about its cost.
The Hawaii Department of Taxation estimated that the credit would cost the state $23.7 million annually.
However, Hawaii Appleseed is pushing for other measures that are still alive in the Legislature this year that could help ease the financial burden for lower-income residents, including a low-income renter’s credit and a bill that would shift some of the state tax burden from Hawaii’s poorest residents to its wealthiest.
House Bill 2166, which would give a tax credit to renters earning under a certain amount, was unanimously passed by the House of Representatives this month. The bill faces a critical vote today by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
An original version of the bill would have increased the credit from $50 to a maximum of $150, adjusted based on household income.
Lawmakers are still debating the numbers in the bill, however, which have been stricken from the current version.
Taxpayers who have paid at least $1,000 in rent during the taxable year would qualify for the credit, which would be multiplied by the number of qualified exemptions they are entitled to. Renters with no income or no taxable income would also qualify for the credit.
The measure has the support of a number of social advocacy groups but has received resistance from the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, which has argued that the bill could add to the state Department of Taxation’s heavy administrative costs.
When “refundable credits are made available to folks who don’t have much (or any) tax liability, those folks are motivated to file a return purely to get the refund check,” wrote the Tax Foundation in testimony on the bill. “When this happens, the department is visited by a number of folks who require special handling, homeless people for example.”
Further, the Tax Foundation wrote that “lawmakers might prefer that the recipient of the refund not use the money obtained on such things as cigarettes, alcohol or illegal drugs” — restrictions that can’t be imposed on a tax refund check.
Hawaii Appleseed is also supporting passage of Senate 2454, which would relieve the tax burden for some of Hawaii’s poorest residents.
The bill was passed by the Senate and has been referred to the House Finance Committee.
“Adopting these tax reforms would help correct the current imbalance in the tax structure, which has our lowest income residents paying nearly twice the tax rate that our most well to do residents pay,” said Thornton, of Hawaii Appleseed, by email.