It’s Gotten Both Worse and Better for Struggling Working Families
The good news is that seventeen Hawai‘i nonprofits are helping working families become more financially stable, find affordable housing, and get involved in policy.
“I want to make a good life for my kids.”
That is the most frequently stated goal among the hundreds of Hawai‘i residents who have participated in the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s workforce training academies, says Mehanaokala Hind, senior director of community programs.
Hind says the plaintive hope in that goal shows how hard it is to live in Hawai‘ i, where the average pay doesn’t cover the high cost of housing, food and other essentials.
“The struggle to just simply survive here, it’s almost like it’s hard for them to have other goals other than surviving here,” she says.
Many who enter the training academies are trying to build better lives for themselves and their families. They have jobs but are financially vulnerable, with little to no savings and with incomes that barely cover their basic needs.
A job loss, health emergency or rent increase can drop them into poverty. These working people are ALICE, an acronym that stands for “asset limited, income constrained, employed.”
A Group of Nonprofits
The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement is part of a cohort of 17 local nonprofits trying to tackle the systemic problems that make it so hard for ALICE households to achieve economic security and prosperity. Their projects help ALICE workers become more financially stable, find affordable housing and get involved in decision making on the policies and rules that govern their lives.
The nonprofits say their efforts have already helped some individuals reduce their debts; increase their credit scores, incomes or savings; and get involved in shaping solutions for themselves and others.
Michelle Kauhane, senior VP of community grants and initiatives at the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, says the work is especially important considering the economic impact Covid will continue to have in the next decades.
“Parents who struggle now, who haven’t been working for a few years or who have been surviving off unemployment and part-time salaries, what is that impact on their children?” she asks. “This is not just about the two or three years that we are focused on containing the pandemic, but about the generational impact that this kind of economy has.”
Surviving, Not Thriving
Maui resident Brandee Carvalho is constantly on the move. She’s a wife, a mother of four children, works two jobs, advocates for economic justice and volunteers as a mental health first aider.
But as part of an ALICE household, she also frequently assesses her family’s finances – a process she likens to the game of Tetris. How much of this month’s pay will go to groceries? How much for child care? How much for gas? What can I spend less on so I can pay for X? She says some families might be able to pick up extra work, but that requires other sacrifices.
“If you have young children – I have young children – what does that look like for quality care to spend time with the family or just have the energy or mental strength to really be in the moment and be present when you are spending time with your family and you’re not so tired or exhausted because you’re working two, three jobs just to keep up with the changes and the rise in costs?” she asks.
The divide between who can make it in Hawai‘i and who can’t is growing. In 2007, 22% of Hawai‘i households were ALICE; in 2018, 33% were. And during that time, 9% of households were living in poverty.
After the pandemic arrived in 2020, the percentage of local ALICE households jumped to an estimated 40%. An additional 19% of households were believed to be living in poverty, according to a June 2020 estimate by the Hawaii Data Collaborative. That means more than half of Hawai‘i’s population is struggling to make ends meet.
“This is the Reality for Most of Us”
“More and more in our community are falling into the ‘I just can’t make it here. It doesn’t work out, the cost of living has not kept up with my salary,’ ” says Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network.
“Many of us have lots of student debt, many of us have jobs – even education is not enough because many people went to college and have a college degree. And that job they can get with a college degree does not pay enough to pay off the debt.”
Deborah Zysman, Executive Director, Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network
Zysman says that even though more than half of Hawai‘i’s population is struggling to get by, there’s often a misconception that we’re talking about “some other people, those people over there.”
“The reality is: This is the reality for most of us. Many of us have lots of student debt, many of us have jobs – even education is not enough because many people went to college and have a college degree,” she says. “And that job they can get with a college degree does not pay enough to pay off the debt.”
The 2022 legislative session saw the passage of several bills that can help ALICE families. Among them: a record $600 million allocation for Hawaiian homelands, a $200 million investment in preschools, incremental increases that will raise the state’s minimum wage to $18 in 2028, and legislation making the state’s earned income tax credit permanent and refundable. The state EITC would have otherwise expired at the end of this year. At press time, Gov. David Ige signed all but the $600 million Hawaiian homelands bill into law.
According to Aloha United Way’s 2020 ALICE report, a single adult needs to make $15.53 an hour to cover basic essentials – housing, transportation, health care, food, a smartphone plan, taxes – and maintain a small savings account for emergencies. The report calls this the ALICE Household Survival Budget, and the numbers are based on 2018 data. A household with one adult and one child needs to earn $23.42 an hour, and a household with an adult and one child in child care needs to earn $27.04 an hour.
ALICE workers hold hundreds of different jobs: They are retail salespeople, child care providers, carpenters, security guards, janitors, housekeepers and servers. They are essential to a functioning society and the state’s economy.
Zysman says society will always have a need for people to work those jobs, so the solutions shouldn’t just be about retraining workers to move into higher- paying industries. It’s also about lowering the cost of living, raising the minimum wage and other ways to get more money into residents’ pockets.
“We have to figure out a way people can work in a service industry, a factory industry – those are good jobs,” she says.
“We need those jobs in our community.” And people working those jobs, she says, should be able to afford a place to live, with food on their tables and child care and education for their children.
Making the state EITC permanent and refundable is one way to do that, she says. A January 2022 brief by the Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network, the Hawai‘i Budget and Policy Center, and the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice reports that the EITC is an effective anti-poverty tool.
The brief reports that EITC is linked to better outcomes for children of the credit’s recipients, such as being less likely to have a low birth weight, higher high school and college graduation rates, and is associated with increased earnings later in life. Households with several keiki tend to benefit the most from the credit as the amount received is based on income and family size.
Impacts of Refundable EITC
Making the state EITC refundable means that a worker who has a tax liability that is smaller than the credit can receive a check for the difference. Even those who owe no money in taxes will still get money from the government. A permanent EITC will help families ensure they can pay their bills, which means less stress for them and fewer people having to work multiple jobs, Zysman says.
Those who will benefit the most from a refundable state EITC are Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians, according to the January 2022 brief. These two groups are more likely than other ethnic groups to earn low wages. An estimated 12% of Native Hawaiians and 18% of Pacific Islanders currently receive the credit, compared with 9% of the entire state.
Calculations by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy estimate that the average credit amount would increase by $174 for the 2022 tax year for Pacific Islanders and by $138 for Native Hawaiians.
“From our perspective, this also goes to help right things the way they should be and gets some money into the hands of those who really need it,” Zysman says.
Paths to Greater Economic Prosperity
Kauhane says cross-sector collaboration is required to address the deep issues that impact Hawai‘i’s ALICE families.
“As ALICE households make even modest improvements, that has an expanded effect on their financial stability and even on the assets and opportunities for the next generation, so we are foremost working to begin to move to increase income and/or reduce expenses in ways that move more families closer to and eventually above the ALICE threshold.”
Suzanne Skjold, COO, Aloha United Way
One effort underway is the ALICE Initiative 2022-2024 cohort. The collaboration of 17 local nonprofits will collectively receive $4.5 million from Aloha United Way and the Hawai‘i Community Foundation over the next three years to help ALICE households improve their finances and find affordable housing.
“As ALICE households make even modest improvements, that has an expanded effect on their financial stability and even on the assets and opportunities for the next generation, so we are foremost working to begin to move to increase income and/or reduce expenses in ways that move more families closer to and eventually above the ALICE threshold,” says Suzanne Skjold, COO of AUW.
One way to do that is through programs that train residents for higher-paying jobs. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s Hawaiian Trades Academy helps people on O‘ahu, Kaua‘i, Maui and Moloka‘i prepare for firefighter and police exams; earn Class A commercial driver’s licenses; and get into entry-level craftsman, carpentry and solar installation positions. Over 8 to 14 weeks, participants develop trade skills, gain certifications, learn about Hawaiian culture, take a financial literacy class and work with mentors.
The goal is to raise the household income of local families by providing an affordable path to trade jobs, says Hind, the council’s senior director of community programs. The academies are offered free or at low cost. The fee for the O‘ahu commercial driver’s license program is $250, while the O‘ahu solar energy program requires a $100 participation deposit that will be refunded upon program completion.
“We’ll have members of our community who don’t have either the time or the money to go to another institution like a four-year college education and/ or even the private sector to go get this type of training,” she says. “How do we provide access to them? We knew that cost and time are usually the two biggest barriers for everybody.”
The nonprofit INPEACE’s financial education program started with a workshop at Wai‘anae District Park about 10 years ago. Saydee Pojas was working in INPEACE’s early childhood program; she says she wanted to help people avoid the financial struggles she encountered as a young adult. About 30 people showed up eager to learn.
INPEACE’s Ho‘oulu Waiwai (“to build wealth”) program has been running for eight years now and has provided financial workshops and counseling for over 1,600 people, most of them Native Hawaiian. The program uses mo‘olelo (Hawaiian stories) and ‘ōlelo no‘eau (Hawaiian proverbs) to help participants better understand financial concepts.
“If you’re talking about how people would fish and only take enough for their family but then make sure there’s still some in the water to fish later, it’s the same concept with your money,” Pojas says. “How do you make sure you have enough for now but how do you save some for later and let it grow a little bit longer? It’s in that teaching that we’ve been able to help people grasp that knowledge a little bit easier.”
Topics include estate planning, budgeting, paying for college or child care, borrowing money and maximizing one’s income. Participants can drop into whichever workshops meet their needs.
Pojas says the program has served ALICE families that over time have been able to reduce debt, move out from their relatives’ homes and purchase their own places. Participants have been able to decrease their debt by an average $3,302 per year. The average credit score increase is 52 points. What’s been key, she says, is letting participants take the lead on how they want to grow. INPEACE’s staff provides the guidance and motivation.
Staff members at Kōkua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services are shifting their approach from economic assistance to economic agency. The health center serves almost 11,000 patients a year across nine locations and through programs that connect residents to the land, food and culture. A little more than half of them live below the federal poverty limit.
During the pandemic, the organization delivered food and helped residents enroll in Medicaid and collect rental assistance, unemployment insurance and other benefits.
“We’re trying to give them a platform so that their voices can be heard and magnified in a way that other people can hear them.”
Megan Inada, Research Coordinator, Kōkua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services
Community Projects Coordinator Michael Epp says KKV wants to build and celebrate the resilience in its community by helping households move away from emergency benefits and toward their aspirations.
This shift to economic agency is still in the early stages. But Epp envisions KKV helping to connect prospective business owners with business incubators, and aspiring nursing students with scholarship programs. And KKV would work with the whole household, not just an individual, Epp adds.
This initiative builds on the health center’s existing programs, relationships and partnerships. It’s another way that KKV follows the lead of the community, says Megan Inada, a research coordinator And the staff plans to learn from the experiences and advice of Kalihi residents who have both received and been denied assistance during the pandemic.
That flips the script to show that they’re not recipients but advocates fighting for their own community, she says. “We know that they have the best perspective on that, of what is needed to be done. We’re trying to give them a platform so that their voices can be heard and magnified in a way that other people can hear them.”
Uplifting Community Voices
Several other nonprofits also have projects to help ALICE households engage in policy and decision-making.
The Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network has run a free Parent Leadership Training Institute for the last six or seven years to transform adults into change agents. Participants who care about the well-being of children and families attend 20 weekly sessions to learn about public speaking, the change process, how government works, budgets and the power of media. They also work on personal projects.
Carvalho, the Maui resident, is a 2021 PLTI alumna. Her project at the training institute was to educate parents about preventing teen suicide. Since graduating, she has volunteered as a mental health first aider and joined the E Ola Hou Prevent Suicide Task Force.
“Without HCAN and PLTI, I would have no direction,” she says. “I wouldn’t have a clue or knowledge that any of these opportunities exist.”
Angie Solomon is the coordinator for Student Parents at UH Mānoa, where she helps student parents navigate campus life and policies, apply for benefits and find resources. While she’s not ALICE herself, many student parents are. She says PLTI helped her learn about the inner workings of government and how to be a better advocate for issues she’s passionate about.
A program supported by the Hawai‘i Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice and other organizations has had similar outcomes. The Affordable Hawai‘i for All Fellows comprises emerging community leaders who have experienced housing instability or homelessness. They share their perspectives with one another and with policymakers, and get training on the legislative process, and they receive a stipend for their time.
Kenna StormoGipson is the director of housing policy at the Hawai‘i Budget and Policy Center, which is a Hawai‘i Appleseed program. She has seen fellows grow from being intimidated or confused about the legislative process to being confident and engaged in submitting testimony, speaking at committee hearings and sharing their experiences.
They’ve also done things like sifting through hundreds of housing-related bills to set the legislative priorities for the Hawai‘i Housing Affordability Coalition, and helping to design a temporary state Covid rent relief and mortgage assistance program. And they inspired the creation of a Hawai‘i delegation that traveled to a June international housing conference in Finland to look at housing solutions.
Lindsay Pacheco is an Affordable Hawai‘ i for All fellow and a co-founder of Ka Po‘e o Kaka‘ako, a group of current and formerly houseless individuals trying to change the way homelessness is addressed. She writes in an email that being a community voice means she can speak on behalf of those who are afraid to speak for themselves: “It allows me to confidently speak up when decisions about our houseless folks are being discussed, allowing me to either disagree or agree, resulting in changing people’s hearts and minds.”
The work with the Affordable Hawai‘ i for All fellows has also caused Hawai‘i Appleseed to change the way it thinks about solving Hawai‘i’s largest problems and to focus on including the perspectives of community members who are most hurt by those problems, says Gavin Thornton, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“I think bringing people with lived experience into the conversation, it isn’t just to learn about the impact of policies from their point of view, but also to bring hope and inspiration into the conversation,” StormGipson says.
“It seems counterintuitive sometimes that the people who are maybe struggling the most would have the most hope or the most courage to do something, but that is where you get the strength and I think the resilience to do something about these really difficult problems.”
Parents and Children Together’s work to address poverty takes a similar approach. It encourages partners and community members to broaden their understanding of the causes and solutions of poverty by helping them form relationships with people in poverty and with people trying to address it. Dawn Kurisu, PACT’s VP of strategy and innovation, says it also highlights the importance of seeing individuals who are under-resourced as problem solvers.
PACT holds Getting Ahead courses to help individuals build resources and skills that can help them grow in their careers and financially. During the 16-session program, participants discuss their resources, how to make changes, community engagement, the causes of poverty, the hidden rules of different socioeconomic classes, and how they plan to achieve their own goals. Participants are seen as experts on their own lives and communities, and they are compensated for sharing their time and expertise.
Kurisu says 88 residents have graduated from 13 Getting Ahead cohorts. Over 90% of them have increased or maintained their economic stability during the pandemic, and some have even reported increased credit scores and savings, promotions at work, or finding better jobs. The vast majority have also made tangible progress toward the goals they set while in the program, such as owning a home, going back to school or increasing their family’s savings.
“I’m Going to be OK Now”
Two summers ago, Tyren Kahala worked as a school bus operator and trainer. After his shift ended, he’d spend three evenings a week in Kapolei, training to get a Class A commercial driver’s license, a certification that would enable him to further his career.
He’s now the lead trainer for his division – a promotion that gives him more hours and better pay. He says he’s indebted to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s training program.
Kahala says the classes were “well worth it,” adding that most of the participants had low incomes. “I’m pretty sure they’re using their license to make better accomplishments and make better finances, because I know I did.”
Hind, CNHA’s senior director of community programs, says participants enter the Hawaiian Trades Academy searching for opportunity. When they leave, they know their newly gained knowledge and skills will help them improve their lives.
One participant’s story sticks with her. He shared at graduation that his uncle told him he will never go hungry again now that he has a commercial driver’s license: “Now it really sinks in that hey, I’m going to be OK. I’m going to be OK now.”