As poverty in Hawaii rises, educational opportunities fade
Without opening a debate as to who said it first, the following clearly applies to the recent U.S. Census data that shows that poverty in Hawaii has gone down in recent years: "There are lies, damn lies and statistics." Just look around and you will see that here in Hawaii and across the United States poverty is a very real and growing problem. So there should be nothing to be pleased about in the recent census data that shows that Hawaii was one of 12 states that experienced a reduction in the percentage of residents living in poverty.
On Aug. 27, the Star-Bulletin reported that "State median income rises." In that article, state Department of Human Services Director Lillian Koller said "the numbers are not a surprise; the number of people in poverty here has been declining since 2006 and Hawaii has consistently been a leader among states in health-insurance coverage."
However, the opening sentence of the article clearly states that the 2007 report comes "from information largely collected before the current economic slowdown." The numbers for Hawaii reflect the "good times" before the closing of Aloha Airlines, Molokai Ranch, the downsizing of Maui Land and Pine and many other recent business reversals. Not to mention national trends like the energy, subprime mortgage and resulting financial and credit crisis. Now rising joblessness and the skyrocketing cost of necessities like food and fuel must mean that poverty and hardship are rising again.
To Koller's and the state's credit, the Keiki Care initiative to expand health-insurance coverage for children started in March. But still one in 10 children in Hawaii (9.8 percent) continued to live in poverty in 2007.
Koller credits her department's use of federal funds to pay for programs to help people at risk of falling into poverty avoid welfare and to get people on welfare back to work for reducing the number of people living below the poverty level. Still, from an overall statewide perspective, the economic growth experienced up to the compilation of the 2007 census only slightly reduced the number/proportion of poor people in Hawaii. Nor was growth shared by middle-income workers, who continue to lose ground. During this same period, corporate profits grew, real estate values skyrocketed and the state actually realized years when there was a budget surplus. Yet most people did not share in those gains.
Another recent Star-Bulletin article, "Students in isles see SAT scores dip" (Aug. 27), shows yet one more troubling aspect of poverty - that higher education, long seen as the ticket to a better life, is much less likely for those in poverty. There is a direct connection between poverty, SAT scores and access to higher education.
According to the College Board, on all three parts of the SAT, the scores of every income bracket are higher than all of the brackets below. And this year, College Board officials noted an increase in the proportion of test takers receiving fee waivers (due to poverty); but that the percentage of SAT takers from the highest income bracket rose while the percentage in the lowest bracket fell.
SAT scores continue a longstanding pattern of following family financial income. Students with family incomes of more than $200,000 had an average math score of 570, while those in the $80,000-$100,000 cohort had an average of 525 and those with family income up to $20,000 had an average of 456. Due to the practice of many colleges and universities relying on set SAT minimum scores for admission and having fewer scholarship dollars to distribute to students who don't score high on the admissions tests, fewer students from low-income families are moving on to higher education.
In the most prosperous nation in the world, it is intolerable to stand by while millions of families struggle just to make ends meet. It's time to make a local and national commitment to do something about it. Cutting poverty in half in 10 years is an attainable goal.
For example, just four straightforward steps would reduce poverty in Hawaii and the U.S. by more than 25 percent: modestly increase the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and enact a Hawaii Earned Income Tax Credit; make the child tax credit available to ALL families with children; raise the minimum wage; and help low- and moderate-income families pay for child care.
The problem is too important for us to continue to ignore.
Wayne M. Tanna is a professor of accounting at Chaminade University and a member of the recently formed Financial Education and Asset Building Taskforce.