Helping Native Hawaiians

The federal government gives more than $70 million for Native Hawaiian programs

February, 2005

When Dayna Sonoda left high school in 1990, she went to work for her dad’s body and fender shop.

Back then, she and her father were the only employees, and bills and taxes were driving the business into the ground. Today – thanks to loans from the Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Fund – Sonoda Body & Fender Shop has eight employees and has grown from two work stalls to around 30.

“That loan took us to the top,” Sonoda says. “That loan helped us get out of the hole and become what we are today.”

Operated by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the fund has loaned out about $16 million and spawned 371 wholly Hawaiian-owned businesses in its 15 years.

It is just one of the programs that brings millions of federal dollars into the state each year specifically for Native Hawaiians – money that not only helps and preserves Native Hawaiian culture, but which experts agree ripples out to benefit the entire state.

The federal government channels more than $59 million a year into the state specifically for Native Hawaiian programs, according to a policy brief by the non-profit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. The lion’s share of the money is for education and training, affordable housing and healthcare.

Competitive grant funding for native peoples brings in another $12 million.

Using the state’s multiplier factor, the council report estimates that the combined $70 million results in $147 million in sales, $69 million in wages and salaries and more than 3,100 jobs in the state economy.

“People tend to focus on just the programs,” says council president Robin Danner. “And the programs are very important. But equally important is the delivery of the programs. Construction people – the biggest one you can look at – when you build affordable housing, there is a human impact well beyond just that family. There are the suppliers, the electricians, the infrastructure workers in terms of road development, subdivision development – it’s across the board.”

The revolving-loan fund that helped the Sonodas also illustrates the spin-off effect of federal support for Native Hawaiians.

“Without the [revolving-loan fund], many of the entrepreneurs would not even have a chance to establish or expand their business,” says Dean Oshiro, who manages the fund for OHA. “The fund has also allowed many Native Hawaiian families to either supplement their existing income or provided income for those that were unemployed, which, in turn, benefits the state, either through increased tax revenues or reduction in government subsistence to these families.”

Danner sees more financial opportunities – but also pitfalls – in the political arena. Much hinges on the federal recognition and what’s known as the Akaka Bill.

If Native Hawaiians are not granted federal recognition, lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Native Hawaiian programs could result in a loss of the federal resources.

On the other hand, Danner says federal recognition has great economic and business potential for the state.

“Federal recognition usually gets couched in emotional terms, but there is a huge economic and business angle to federal recognition,” she says.

In Alaska, for example, federal recognition has translated into increased business activity and jobs through federal contracts.

“Many of these native businesses are some of the top employers in that state, employing native and non-native alike,” Danner says.

Hawaii’s federal recognition bill is scheduled for a vote in Washington this year, after being roadblocked since 2000.

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