“The poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent… The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the need for a guaranteed annual income, Aug. 16, 1967
“Are we willing to say as a society, that someone with zero skills but who is willing to work 40 hours at something – a plantation worker comes to mind – is entitled to be paid enough to make ends meet here? If so, then why did many of us bust our butts trying to acquire marketable skills?” – President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii Tom Yamachika in a Maui News column, Jan. 18, 2020
If there’s one thing you can almost admire about Tom Yamachika, it’s his audacity to say the quiet part loud no matter how depraved. Implying that imported plantation workers deserved the oppressive working conditions they endured, and questioning workers’ rights to dignified lives the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day – well, that takes… a special kind of person.
For all his elitist hand-wringing and grasping arguments, though, there is one thing about Yamachika’s Jan. 18 column “What really is a minimum wage?” that I am thankful for: the clear articulation of a disregard and disdain for the poor which appears at all levels of government. It seems we are no longer engaged in the War on Poverty envisioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.
Rather, it’s War on the Poor.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court voted 5-4 to allow the Trump Administration to enforce a rule which makes it harder for poor immigrants to be granted green cards or visas. The restriction allows the denial of immigrant visas if a person is deemed a “public charge,” or someone who uses or is likely to use public assistance programs. That part’s nothing new. However, Trump’s rule change expands the previous definition of public assistance from only meaning cash assistance to now include Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or “food stamps”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
So far the effect has been “chilling,” reported the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice Monday. “There is much anecdotal evidence that the rumors of this new public charge rule have caused a ‘chilling’ effect among immigrant families since 2017, when it was first leaked to the media,” the organization stated. “News reports from across the country describe how some immigrant families have decided to forgo all government benefits – even if they and their children were eligible for and sorely needed them – to avoid the potential negative consequences of the new public charge rule.”
“Between fiscal years 2016 and 2018, there was a 9 percent drop in SNAP participation among citizens in Hawaiʻi, as would be expected in an improving economy,” Hawai‘i Appleseed added. “However, alarmingly, SNAP participation dropped much more sharply for non-citizens – by 33 percent over that same time period. In other words, over 5,300 more eligible Hawaiʻi residents may have gotten SNAP benefits in FY2018 if the public charge rule had not been announced in early 2017.”
For Hawai‘i’s children of non-citizens, the decline in SNAP participation was a drastic 38 percent.
The most useful takeaway at Wednesday’s 2020 Civil Beat Legislative Preview were the words of Rep. Cynthia Thielan, who has announced that she is leaving the House after 30 years of service to Hawaii. “The best way to reach out is to come to Committee hearings and testify on bills,” she said. “Show up in person to change legislation. Explain your position. Don’t just read… Speak from your heart.”
As a reporter for over 30 years, I have seen the effect of heartfelt testimony; she is right.
The panel included Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell, who covers the state legislature (and who did a darn good job of covering this weekend’s tragic police shooting) and Civil Beat Political Editor Chad Blair, acting as facilitator. Gavin Thornton, executive director of Hawai’i Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, and the Rep. Cynthia Thielen.
Blair kicked off the discussion musing about the unexpected unity among the majority members of both the House and Senate to support legislation to raise the minimum wage to $13/hour, improving schools, create more affordable housing and fight homelessness – all issues critical to the future of Hawaii.
Keohokalole took advantage of the opportunity to address the State’s crisis of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. He expressed his frustration with the the cycle of substance abuse, jail and hospitalizations – which usually ends by returning people to the streets still homeless and addicted. “We need to reposition some of our resources; we’re burning through money for a population that needs more help than we can provide.” He wants to expand what he termed as “underutilized state health facilities,” to expand mental health opportunities.
None of that is a revelation; nor does it solve the housing crisis, the addiction problem, the wage gap or homelessness. But it sounds good.
Keohokalole also talked about decriminalizing and legalizing drugs, starting with marijuana. Possession of up to 3 grams of marijuana carries a $130 fine, though it is still not legal in Hawaii. “We have to wait for a new governor,” he said, referring to Gov. David Ige.
Ige has been clear on his position. “As long as it’s illegal from the federal government perspective, I really don’t believe we should be making it legal for recreational purposes,” he said. He neither signed nor vetoed the law, allowing it to become law.
Thielen has long promoted the cultivation of industrial (non-THC) hemp, used in the production of everything from food to cosmetics, which she mentioned during the discussion.
And while it is terrific that state legislators acknowledge that the cost of living is out of reach for most Hawaiians, it is also clear that the proposed $13/hour is not a “livable wage.” That was confirmed by Gavin Thornton, who pointed out that the current rate, $10.10/hour, is $21,000 annually. It would be $13 in 2024, which would hardly keep up with inflation.
His organization is pushing for $17 minimum wage by 2025. “Today, we need to figure out a way to make it possible to make ends meet. Nearly half [the population] don’t earn enough,” referring to the ALICE report by the Aloha United Way. Pointing to the number of people migrating off the island, he said that Hawaii has the lowest wages in the nation, when figuring in the cost of living.
Thornton encouraged the legislation’s goal of expanding early childhood education for Pre-K kids, calling it a “smart investment.” His Appleseed “Wish List” included a greater hike in the minimum wage and paid family leave to care for family members and newborns.
Thielen was asked about her position on the last piece of the rail puzzle, currently set to include seven stations between Kaka’ako and Ala Moana. “We can’t control the sea level rise,” she said, though legislators continue to approve easements for sea walls and embankments for 55-year periods. “We’re slow to recognize the emerging problem problem of the emerging sea. We’re not paying attention.” HB1611 would authorize the Board of Land and Natural Resources to provide shoreline encroachment easements for not more than 10 years to landowners with structures that encroach on the shoreline, and requires that the policy adopted considers the impact of the expected rising sea levels on the structures.
In addition to acknowledging the impact of global warming on an island state, Thielen also noted that there were no women in leadership on opening day Jan. 15. “Not a single woman up there with the leaders calling the shots… 100% men. There needs to be better equality in this building and more women elected.”
Among the primary focus areas at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice: hunger and food insecurity. While Hawaii has made strides in addressing this issue in the growing senior population, current estimates place food insecurity in the age 60-and-older bracket at between 5% and nearly 10%. Using the more conservative estimate, more than 16,700 seniors here are at risk of going hungry.
In a just-released report, “Feeding Our Kupuna,” the nonprofit’s assessment of the problem is illustrated with three pillars: access to resources, health and nutrition, and community resilience.
Together, they serve as a “framework that acknowledges the complexity of what it takes to truly address hunger,” said Daniela Spoto Kittinger, director of anti-hunger initiatives at Hawaii Appleseed, which advocates on behalf of low-income and marginalized people, and conducts data- driven research to inform public policy and systems change.
“Traditionally, anti-hunger solutions have focused only on the access-to-resources pillar — making sure that all people have food. Little attention has been paid to how healthy that food is, or whether we see our food system as an opportunity to generate community wealth and address hunger at its root,” she said.
Kittinger, who grew up in California, holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, kinesiology and cellular biology from University of California-San Diego, and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
After undergrad commencement, she said, “I tried out a career in personal training and nutritional coaching, but became frustrated with the realization that people’s health behaviors often have more to do with their environment and the systems that they are placed in, than with their knowledge about what a healthy lifestyle looks like.”
While in grad school (2007-2009), Kittinger became fascinated with “how our food system incentivizes the proliferation of cheap, unhealthy calories.” She added, “Since then, I’ve been a passionate advocate for policies and systems that increase community ownership of the means of food production.”
Question: One of the “Feeding Our Kupuna” report’s recommended goals is to increase Hawaii’s senior enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from 50% to 70%. What accounts for under-enrollment?
Answer: Under-enrollment of seniors in SNAP is a problem in every state. … Even so, we are actually doing better than the national average of 41% of eligible seniors participating. There are a few reasons for this. The first is stigma. Seniors, perhaps more than some other populations, may be skeptical of the social image that relying on SNAP may present to others, or concerned over the implications that SNAP has on their autonomy and independence.
Another reason is mobility. While social workers and caregivers can provide at-home application assistance, there are components of the SNAP application process — such as picking up benefits cards — that require travel to SNAP centers. While the process can be delegated to authorized representatives, not all seniors have relatives who can take on this responsibility.
Finally, the application can be particularly challenging for seniors. It requires the completion of several pages of documentation, and may also require home visits by a case worker, or meetings with an additional family member or friend to help with collection of documentation.
One thing we recommend … is that the state Department of Human Services apply for a collection of waivers called the Elderly Simplified Application Project. This process would shorten the application, reduce documentation requirements through the use of “data matching” with other benefits programs, and eliminate the re-certification interview.
When Alabama put these procedures in place, they were able to gradually add over 42,000 additional senior households to the program. A similar scale increase in Hawaii would get us halfway to the 70% enrollment goal and draw down millions of additional federal dollars into our local economy.
Q: Another goal is to expand access to the federal Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)?
A: The SFMNP program offers $50 in vouchers for seniors to spend at participating farmers’ markets. The program is popular in Hawaii, serving over 9,000 seniors last year with a wait list of 400 seniors. What’s nice about it is that the eligibility requirements are much less stringent than SNAP.
It’s also an added benefit that it channels federal dollars into the local economy — a perfect example of a solution that addresses the pillar of community resilience. … Access to the program could be improved further if we subsidize with state funds. … Just $25,000 in state funding could eliminate the wait list.
Q: The report mentions “food-as-medicine.” What does that mean, exactly?
A: That nutritious food is important, not just as a part of a healthy lifestyle, but also as a critical component in our health-care system. The idea has … become more commonplace with the emergence of tangible practices, such as with “prescriptions” for fresh produce, or for home-delivered, medically tailored meals. In these models, physicians prescribe nutrient-dense foods to patients in food insecure households or with diet-related illnesses.
In other states, health-care organizations are piloting “shop with your doc” programs, where you can meet a physician at the grocery store who will help you make a shopping list, create a menu, and read food labels. The implications of these programs go beyond food access, by amplifying the message that what you eat impacts your health in very direct ways.
Funding is often the limiting factor for these programs, but that is starting to change. In the most recent Farm Bill, Congress authorized $4 million in grants for produce prescription pilot programs for each fiscal year 2019 through 2023.
Q: Regarding keiki hunger, Hawaii Appleseed is working with partners to increase participation in school breakfast offerings?
A: Research shows that students who eat breakfast perform better on tests and have a lower incidence of behavioral issues. Unfortunately, too many Hawaii students don’t get breakfast. Our state currently ranks 50th for participation rates in the National School Breakfast Program.
The good news is that there are solutions that we know work. … We have partnered with the state Department of Education (DOE) and first lady Dawn Amano-Ige, with support from national partners No Kid Hungry, the Food Research and Action Center, and local Safeway stores, to launch a program we call “Jump Start Breakfast.”
The program encourages schools to try out innovative breakfast models, such as grab-and-go, eating breakfast in the classroom, or placing a breakfast truck or kiosk where kids tend to congregate before school. Every school is different, so we encourage schools to work with their safety-and-wellness committee to discuss what might work best for them. … Last year, we tested some of these models at 10 schools … and are planning to expand to more schools across this year.
Q: Have Hawaii’s food-related challenges changed significantly over the past decade or so?
A: I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the narratives and practices around nutrition, food and agriculture in Hawaii since I first started working in the field. There have been the pioneers: MA‘O farms in Waianae and the Kohala Center come to mind. Because of them and many others, we’ve seen a resurgence in indigenous foodways, and an increase in the number of small farms and food businesses that cater to local residents and tourists than there was just 10 years ago.
The DOE is taking farm-to-school seriously, and we’ve also seen an incredible increase in the number of schools with gardens where students can learn applied nutrition.
Wealthier residents have largely driven the shift toward more local, sustainable produce, through farm-to-table restaurants and large retailers like Whole Foods. Unfortunately, low-income communities are still largely left out of the conversation, which is why it’s so important that we focus on the three pillars. …
True food justice means ensuring that everyone, including those who struggle to make ends meet, have access to the same quality, locally produced foods as those with means. … There is much more to be done, but we’ve come a long way. hunger
Minimum wage. Kaimuki resident Brandy Gouveia, 24, works 80 hours a week to pay for her $1, 350 studio apartment with added bills.
She said it’s still not enough.
“I grew up in foster care, so I don’t have an auntie or uncle to call, ” Gouveia said in an interview. “Everything I have comes out of my pocket. Last year I had to take a graveyard shift as a second source of income. It took an emotional toll on my health.”
About 50 living wage advocates rallied at the state Capitol Wednesday evening to push lawmakers to raise the the hourly wage to $17, from the current minimum of $10.10. The average full-time Hawaii resident making minimum wage makes only $21, 000 a year.
Signs read, “Don’t make me leave Hawaii, ” echoing the frustration from Faith Action for Community Equity and Raise Up Hawai ‘i and other advocates for raising the minimum.
Last year House and Senate lawmakers considered bills that would have increased the minimum wage to $15, but the measures died in conference.
Reps. Dale Kobayashi (D, Manoa-Punahou-Moiliili ) and Amy Perruso (D, Wahiawa -Whitmore-Poamoho ) said at the rally that they support the wage increase. Perruso said her community has a “40 % higher rate of poverty than the state average.”
“Our workers are not just young, entry-level employees, ” Perruso said at the rally. “There are people in my community who are working two or three jobs just to feed their families.”
Nearly half of Hawaii families making minimum wage struggle, according to the Aloha United Way, and the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism calculates that a resident with no children needs to earn at least $17.63 an hour to make ends meet.
But proposals to raise the wage floor worry some of the mom-and-pop shops.
Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview that everything adds up for businesses, and a higher minimum would lead to increased cost of goods.
“While some businesses pay above minimum wage, there are some that cannot afford it.” Menor-McNamara said. “Merely raising the minimum wage would not improve the cost of living.”
Nicole Woo, senior policy analyst for Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law &Economic Justice, gave a PowerPoint presentation on planning for this year’s session of the Legislature in a meeting shortly after the rally. She noted that some local businesses are expected to oppose the wage increase.
“When we talk about $17 or $15, we’re not talking about raising it tomorrow or next year, ” Woo said. “We’re talking about taking regular steps by $1 or $1.50 a year.”
Woo said this would help businesses prepare if the wage increase passes.