Incomes in Hawaii are not as high as you’ve heard: Here’s why

Over the years, the media has often reported that Hawai‘i incomes are among the highest in the nation. If that doesn’t sound quite right to you, trust your gut.

In the past, the U.S. Census Bureau has publicly released information about household and family incomes, but not individual incomes. So while the media is correct to report that we have, for example, the 4th highest median household income in the nation in 2017, they’re not reporting that we have some of the largest household sizes, too. That means, per person, we’re really not doing as well as news stories make it seem.

However, in September 2018, for the first time, the Census Bureau publicly released data about median individual incomes. This data tells a very different story. Instead of being near the top of the list, it turns out that a median male full-time full-year worker’s earnings in Hawaiʻi was just $51,594 in 2017, barely over the national average, and only 21st in the nation (see tables R2001 & R2002). We see a similar situation with female workers in Hawai‘i: their median was $41,664, also barely over the national average and 19th in the nation.

In other words, our residents are facing the nation’s highest cost of living without the earnings to keep up.

Why is there such a difference between our household and individual incomes? The Census data can help explain that, too. We have the second-largest average household size, just behind Utah. It’s not a surprise that we also have the largest portion of multigenerational households in the nation—at 7.8 percent, more than 2 times the national average—and the largest portion of households with an elderly member (over 65 years old).

In addition, we have the second highest percentage of our civilian employed population working in service occupations that support our tourism-dependent economy, behind only Nevada (which has a heavily unionized service sector). The typical union worker made $970 a week in 2014, compared to $763 for non-union workers, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Further evidence that incomes in Hawai‘i can’t stretch far enough includes the fact that we have the highest renter housing costs in the nation at $1,573 per month, or 55 percent higher than the national average of $1,012.

Even those who are lucky enough to have purchased a home here are feeling the pinch: Hawai‘i has the highest percentage of mortgaged homeowners who are housing cost-burdened (spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs) in the country and the third highest portion of renters who are housing cost-burdened.

This translates into Hawai‘i having the highest percentage of housing with more than one occupant per room. At 8.9 percent, our “overcrowding” rate is nearly 3 times the national average of 3.4 percent. It’s not hard to see how this contributes to our highest-in-the-nation houselessness rate as well.

So the next time you hear someone say that Hawai‘i has some of the highest incomes in the nation, remember that they’re talking about household income. When you factor in how large our households are, our individual earnings are only a little above the national average, and not nearly enough to keep up with the highest cost of living in the nation.