More than a quarter of the 25 seats in the Hawaii Senate are held by women. More than a quarter of the 51 seats in the Hawaii House of Representatives are held by women. But that apparently wasn’t enough woman power to legislate policies this past session that address the intolerable burden of poverty borne disproportionately by women in this state. The recent Star- Advertiser editorial announcing in its headline that “Too many Hawaii residents struggle with cost of living” wasn’t new news (Our View, May 20). But perhaps the painful truths of the ALICE report from Aloha United Way just weren’t as clear to our legislators as it appears to be to most Hawaii residents.
The acronym ALICE for “Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed” describes close to 50 percent of our working households in that precarious condition of struggling mightily to survive. That means barely being able to pay for housing, food, childcare, healthcare, transportation and a cell phone. Or, rather not being able to, and living close to the edge of becoming houseless.
While the tourists keep coming, many of the poor in Hawaii keep going to the sidewalks, even as they work two or three jobs, often in the service industry: keeping those hotel rooms clean, serving exotic cocktails and dishing out Hawaiian culture for visitor consumption. This is hair-on-fire crazy, and downright cruel to the children who suffer the indignities of poverty the most, in households headed by a single female parent. Nearly 40 percent live below the federal poverty line. Nearly 50 percent more are ALICE families.
The Star-Advertiser is right to call for more collaboration amongst nonprofits, businesses and government to make life in Hawaii possible for working families. But enabling more citizens to “earn a living wage” suggests that we have agreement on what is a living wage. We do not.
Or we would not ask those with minimum wage jobs to get by on $21,000 a year when the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism tells us it takes at least $30,000 just to survive.
Yet this session, legislators chose to kill the effort to raise the minimum wage from the current $10.10 to $15 an hour. The momentum to pass a meaningful paid family leave law fizzled out into a plan to study –again—what Hawaii needs and how we might respond. Early in 2018 researchers with impeccable credentials presented the results of a 2017 study of the need for paid family leave in Hawaii. They proposed a low-cost public insurance model—based on a study of models used elsewhere. But neither that study nor the grim realities of rising houselessness were sufficient to move legislators to act.
When biologists paid $14-$19 an hour struggle to keep it together; when a highly skilled couple with graduate degrees working for a nonprofit and a government agency feel they may have to return to Germany to be able to afford a second child, we should recognize we are in crisis. Hawaii cannot afford to lose good people doing work critical to protecting the natural assets that we all depend on for life, and that sustain the visitor industry. We should also treat public school teachers better. Isn’t it a kind of depraved indifference to watch as teachers, who make all other professions possible, are driven to take second jobs? So why don’t we do a better job of making their lives possible? The houseless on our streets are telling us that the center is not holding. We may be helpless in the face of Pele’s eruptions, but we can do something about the fissures in our social fabric. It is past time to commit to a living wage and paid family leave. If our political rhetoric is to mean anything at all.
The OpEd above was first published on May 31, 2018 in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. It is reproduced here with permission.
On June 6, the Honolulu City Council adopted a resolution calling for a living wage. The resolution was introduced by Chair Ernie Martin.
Advancing a living wage was also adopted as part of the Hawaii Democratic Party platform at the 2018 convention in May.