Numbers don’t lie, but they sometimes tell tall tales. And often, they leave a lot of people scratching their heads, wondering why the data don’t seem to reflect the same reality they see.
Every year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development updates its calculation of the area median income (AMI) for a family in a given location, and in April, Honolulu got a bit of a shock.
The AMI for Oahu families was set at $96,000, an 11 percent jump from the previous year. The income level affects who qualifies for affordable housing. For example, workforce housing is reserved for those earning between 80 percent to 140 percent of AMI, and low-income housing is geared for those at 60 percent AMI and below.
This made it easier for more homeowners and renters to qualify for housing projects — good news, from that standpoint. However, the increase might have seemed wrong to many people who did not see their pay packets grow by anything close to 11 percent.
The national economy is faring well, we all hear, and locally the unemployment rate is lower even than the national average. But how is Hawaii really doing, wage-wise?
The answer is, as might be expected, complicated. HUD goes back five years to gather data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to arrive at an estimate for a given year, said Ed Cabrera, regional public affairs officer for HUD.
If there is a more recent one-year survey result with a low enough margin of error to be considered valid, that is folded in as well, he said.
An examination of the yearly figures shows that the 2017 AMI estimate was based on five years that included a dip in income — these were still fairly early post-recession years — so that the increase in 2018 looked larger.
Even given those caveats, it’s still difficult to understand — until one considers that these AMIs are family incomes. Barbara Poole-Street, a retired professor of economics at Chaminade University, said this reflects the current social dynamic, especially in Hawaii’s setting of service-economy jobs and high costs of living.
“It used to be that young people would graduate and move out on their own,” Poole-Street said. “Now those young people stay home and are considered part of that family.”
Carl Bonham, University of Hawaii economics professor, agrees with the basic conclusion: Family income likely increases more from additional jobs in the mix, than from jobs that pay better.
“It’s certainly possible that you had more earners in the family as the recovery got better,” said Bonham, who also serves as executive director of the UH Economics Research Organization.
And he underscored that this is a median figure which defines the middle point: Half the people are still below that point.
The economy has certainly recovered since the recession of a decade ago, Bonham said, but for many people the wages have barely kept up with inflation. In real terms, earners may have worked their way back up only to where they were in 2005 or so.
“When you take out inflation, you essentially have this flat median family income,” he added. “The recovery leaves you no better off than 10 years ago — or 30. That’s the story about ‘Things aren’t so great.’”
with that assessment is Eugene Tian, chief economist at the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Tian said personal income increases between 1987 and 2017 averaged 4.7 percent a year. But over the past 20 years, the annual growth rate is only 4.3 percent.
“What we see is a declining growth rate,” Tian said. “I see this is a national trend.”
And if wages aren’t increasing as fast as the cost of living, people have to share the costs. Statistics indicate that Hawaii is a standout among the states for the size and demographics of those households.
Tian said Hawaii ranks second behind Utah for the largest household size in the nation, and first for multigenerational families — 11.5 percent of all family households comprise three or more generations.
And driving this intimate family arrangement, of course, are lower individual wages. Per capita personal income puts Hawaii closer to the middle of the pack. The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, where Tian works, compiles all these data points online (dbedt.hawaii.gov/economic/ranks).
These include a chart from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis showing Hawaii ranking 19th among the states and the District of Columbia, with a 2016 personal income average of $50,363. That’s $1,117 above the national average — not much, considering how expensive things are here.
Further, Tian said, the economic growth rate nationally is hovering above 2 percent but Hawaii’s rate is below that — closer to 1.8 percent now. It may be indicative of a “mature” economy: The big tourism development peaked four decades ago.
The low unemployment rate doesn’t help fuel business expansion, either, especially if there’s a mismatch between the workforce skills and industry needs, he said.
“Tourism, although it is booming, it is only 17 percent of the economy,” Tian added. “There are other industries not doing well, declining: wholesale, retail, manufacturing, even construction. And it’s difficult to find workers, so they restrict growth.”
There are people who haven’t been in the labor force for a while but are rejoining it now. The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations tracks that trend, said Phyllis Dayao, chief of its Research and Statistics Office.
Dayao pointed to data from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that of Hawaii hires made in the early post-recession years, more than half were from “persistent nonemployment.”
is narrowing now, as the unemployment rate falls, but that can explain where some of the added family income is coming from: household members who are either getting their first job, picking up an additional part-time income or re-entering the workforce after long-term joblessness.
“Someone who hasn’t been working or looking for work, there’s a really big chance they are living with family,” said Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst at Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for policy changes addressing poverty.
Woo cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the single data point of rising family AMI estimates, which are typically based on small data sets.
They also miss certain pockets of society, she said, including elders living alone.
“Family income doesn’t count households of one — and there are probably a whole lot of kupuna who are households of one.
“Between 2011 and 2018, there’s been a huge increase in housing costs,” Woo added. “This might be how families respond — they move in together.”
Combining income is a survival strategy, economist Poole-Street agreed, but it may not amount to more than treading water. A new job helps pay the bills, but it’s not necessarily an escape hatch.
“The question,” she said, “is what are those new jobs paying, and are people going to be able to work their way out of poverty?”