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Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Hawaii is a good
place to be poor

(First of three articles)


MY question was: Should we, as a society, feel guilty about the way we treat our poor and homeless?

The respondent was the state government's lead person in dealing with this problem, Susan M. Chandler, director of the Department of Human Resources.

Her answer came in two parts: 1) If we were talking about the United States as a whole, she said, she thinks our rich society could do much more; 2) Narrowed to Hawaii, she thinks we are doing quite well -- far from perfect, but quite well.

She would rather be poor in America than in any other country in the world and rather be poor in Hawaii than in any other state.

If she lived in mostly middle-class Sweden, she said, she might not be as poor as some people here but she dislikes its oppressive, highly regulated atmosphere. Even China under communism, she said, has poor and outcast homeless who are worse off than anybody here.

That suggested an immediate question. If we are so attractive, why don't all of America's poor migrate here?

She finds that an exaggerated fear. Even poor people want to stay near familiar surroundings and people they know. Some years ago her department had a policy of paying for return flights to the mainland for migrant poor. It has no such policy now. Some social agencies with flexible cash may provide such help, but the need is not great.

She would like more flexibility for her department to deploy small amounts of cash. An example would be to finance car repairs that might keep a potential welfare client off welfare by providing job transportation.

How are we kinder than the other 49 states? She ticks off mandatory employer-subsidized health insurance, very generous health benefits, a "very sensible" workfare program that helps people find and train for jobs rather than cutting them off cold, maintenance of benefits until working welfare clients break over the poverty line.

Fund flexibility will be her main request from the Legislature this year but she wishes more could be done to discourage employers from hiring employees for just under 20 hours a week in order to avoid health-insurance costs. Despite that fault our number of people without health insurance is 10 percent or less, lowest in the nation.

NEW federal policy sets a five-year lifetime maximum benefit period for welfare help. The Hawaii Community Action Program historically has been a job-finder for the unemployed. Chandler has riled it by seeking help also from Maximus, a national organization focused on getting jobs for welfare clients. It holds a $250,000 contract starting last July 1.

Last year the American Friends Service Committee interviewed 49 welfare clients who were heads of households in urban Honolulu. It found what Chandler also stresses -- that hardly anyone wants to be poor and on welfare. The red tape alone is discouraging, Chandler says.

At one point the AFSC report comments: "Any assumption that this group is passive, lazy or unmotivated is in error. A more accurate description of these heads of households is that they are stressed...They are good jugglers of resources and time." The report says there is only dim hope for the rest of the welfare population if this group can't become economically self-sufficient within the federal five-year limit.

Thursday: A Salvation Army perspective.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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