Many Hawaii residents depend on food banks like this one in Kakaako run by the nonprofit Feeding Hawaii Together. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino

Missing: $209 Million from Hawaii’s Economy

That’s how much eligible Hawaii families did not claim in food stamp benefits in 2013, according to a local report, and that’s just part of the federal benefits that go unclaimed by needy families.

February, 2016

You own a home. You pay for childcare. You have a full-time job. That seems to indicate a stable working-class or middle-class life.

But, in Hawaii, with the nation’s highest cost of living and relatively low wages, all those things don’t necessarily mean you’re making enough to cover your basic expenses, such as groceries, utilities and housing. Thousands of families in Hawaii are eligible for federal financial help, yet don’t know it, say social service providers.

“The biggest problem with public benefits is not that people aren’t qualified, often it’s that there’s misinformation out there,” says James Li, the program manager for the SNAP community outreach program at the nonprofit Helping Hands Hawaii. “They think they don’t qualify because of one barrier or another.”

Public benefit programs, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – previously known as food stamps – and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), can provide financial support to thousands more low-income families and funnel extra federal money into Hawaii’s economy.

But many people don’t know they qualify for these public benefits, or are resistant to applying. Only two-thirds of Hawaii residents eligible for SNAP receive it, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2012, the most recent data available. The Aloha State ranked 4th lowest in participation rate, with only Nevada, California and Wyoming ranking lower.

Hawaii participation also lags in EITC, free and reduced-price school lunch and breakfast, as well as Supplemental Security Income (specifically for children with disabilities), according to Victor Geminiani, the director for Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

“The biggest problem with public benefits is not that people aren’t qualified, often it’s that there’s misinformation out there.”

— James Li, Program manager, SNAP community outreach program at the nonprofit Helping Hands Hawaii


Low participation comes with a big price tag: In 2013, Hawaii missed out on $209.4 million in SNAP benefits not received by eligible households, according to a report by the Hawaii Appleseed Center. That year, another $27.6 million in EITC benefits went unclaimed – all of which could have been benefiting local families and the local economy.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education could gain another $2.3 million in federal funds if 20 percent more students who get free and reduced-price school lunches ate breakfast at school, the Appleseed report says.

“It’s all about education, educating people that they’re eligible,” says Geminiani. “The first thing you’ve got to figure out is … what their fears are, what their resistance is, what’s their reason for their not knowing that these programs were available.”

Many people may not apply because of the social stigma surrounding welfare.

“Our culture is built upon encouraging, rewarding and admiring success,” he says. “Low income (people) are often perceived as unsuccessful in life because of inherent failures of judgment and, too often, suffer from addiction.”

So people who may be eligible for critical programs, such as SNAP or SSI, may decide not to apply because of their fear of being judged by others, Geminiani says. That’s why the local community organizations that help residents apply for these programs also try to counter these attitudes.

James Li’s SNAP outreach program at Helping Hands Hawaii helps identify populations, such as the elderly and homeless, that might have issues with applying and maintaining their benefits.

In 2014, the organization spent $47,000 on SNAP outreach. It also was awarded another $70,000 from the Hawaii Department of Human Services, along with about $62,000 in federal funding.

That year, the organization says it sent 450 SNAP applications to DHS, which approved another $124,270 in monthly benefits. That’s about $1.5 million in added economic benefit to those people and the overall community in one year.

Helping Hands says that for every dollar it spent on outreach in 2014, the local economy got about $15 back. “We want to make sure people get the right information and assess their eligibility based on their need, not based on what somebody else says,” Li says.

Goodwill Hawaii and the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii offer help with filing taxes, which includes filing for tax credits, such as EITC. There are also agencies like Hope Services Hawaii that provide SNAP outreach on the Neighbor Islands.

Li says his team can be most effective by training the social service agencies that are already working with the people who need help.

“There are a lot of agencies out there that are already doing work in the public benefits area,” Li says. “Why reinvent the wheel?”

Where to Get Help

Helping Hands Hawaii

Helps with: SNAP Outreach

Legal Aid Hawaii

Helps with: Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), General Assistance (GA), Aid to Aged, Blind, Disabled (AABD), Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Quest, Medicaid/Medicare, Income Tax Prep

Goodwill Hawaii

Helps with: Income Tax Prep

Hawaii Community Action Program

Helps with: Earned Income Tax
Credit Assistance, SNAP

Hope Services Hawaii

Helps with: SNAP, TANF

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