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Editorial: Restore funds for most vulnerable

Hawaii received more than $600 million in federal coronavirus relief last year that was distributed throughout state agencies, and is set to receive an additional $1.6 billion to bolster the state budget. Despite the massive infusion of money for riding out and recovering from the pandemic’s economic wallop, a state-funded safety net that keeps especially vulnerable residents from falling into homelessness is fraying under the strain of rising enrollment.

This net must be patched now, to immediately help some 6,700 claimants — disabled adults with little or no income who are unemployable and suffering from a psychological or physical disability. To that end, the Ige administration is asking the Legislature to support Senate Bill 1127 — an emergency appropriation from general revenues to cover a funding shortfall for the “general assistance” program, administered by the Department of Human Services (DHS).

The measure is advancing, but the inexplicably plodding pace forces it through additional House and Senate approvals before it can be sent to the governor. Given that the program’s welfare payments were slashed this month, due to emergency reserve funds tapping out, lawmakers must hit the gas, fast-tracking delivery of the requested $5.4 million to the program.

Beginning this month, DHS reduced payments by one-third, from $388 a month to $260 a month. Recipients use this cash benefit for bare-bones essentials such as food, clothing and shelter. For many claimants, the program serves as a stopgap as they apply for permanent disability through Social Security, which can be a lengthy process.

The number of claimants in the program, due in large part to the economic woes caused by the pandemic, has steadily shot up; last month it was 26% higher than a year ago. However, because it wasn’t clear to state officials whether last year’s federal relief funds could go to the program, DHS opted to tap out its own reserves.

Now, by failing to quickly plug the shortfall with retroactive payments to beneficiaries, lawmakers would leave them at high risk of losing what little they have. In testimony supporting SB 1127, Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, noted that following the last recession, between 2009 and 2016, statewide homelessness increased by 37%, or by more than 2,100 people, according to an annual nationwide census.

This time around, he said: “Given the higher rates of unemployment and prolonged nature of the current economic decline, we can anticipate higher rates of homelessness over a period of several years following the pandemic.”

For both moral and economic-recovery reasons, the state must take steps to prevent returning Hawaii to the ignoble distinction — held while climbing out of the great recession — of having the nation’s worst per capita rate of homelessness.

Clearly, SB 1127 must be attended to before lawmakers dedicate time debating less-pressing matters, such as whether to give themselves pay raises. Recommended by the state Commission on Salaries in 2019, raises are slated to take effect on July 1 and Jan. 1, 2022, unless the Legislature takes action to defer them — as it should, with so many other more critical and pressing needs to fund.

At both state and city levels, more relief assistance will be necessary to help the full range of individuals and households struggling to make financial ends meet basic monthly expenses. To that end, it’s encouraging that Honolulu Hale is now prepping to deliver $114 million in welcome federal funds — flowing from the $1.9 trillion relief package — for further rent and utility relief, providing up to 12 months of financial help for qualified households.

Treatment of the weakest members of society serves as a reflection on government. Among the moral tests: how those who are in the “shadows of life” are treated — the needy and the disabled among them.

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