State's Pacific burden deserves federal help
While at first glance his remarks might appear somewhat selfish or cold-hearted, Gov. Ben Cayetano was right on target with his reaction to a new congressional report about the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.
The report, out of the General Accounting Office, urged increased health and education money to the governments of these two Pacific island groups. Part of the rationale is that the extra relief to the Marshalls and Micronesia would ease the burden now being felt by Hawai'i.
Under compacts of free association with these two nations, citizens are free to travel, live and work in the United States. Faced with a lack of job or educational opportunities at home, many residents move on to Guam, the Northern Marianas, Hawai'i and even the U.S. Mainland.
Many arrive in Hawai'i with poor job skills or with medical problems. The GAO report says that 59 percent of those living in Hawai'i are in poverty and making use of social services. Education and healthcare costs to the State of Hawai'i were close to $15 million in the year 2000 alone, the report suggests. One way out of this problem would be fresh federal grants targeted toward building education and health systems in the island nations.
That's fine as far as it goes, Cayetano suggested. But if there is money available, he told Congress, some of it should go to Hawai'i to offset the immediate expense of dealing with these Pacific migrants. Guam and the Northern Marianas do receive some federal help of this type.
Cayetano's argument is that since the late 1980s, billions have flowed to these island states with little to show in the way of high-quality education and health systems. He is correct, although it would be unfair to expect these small isolated nations to be any quicker at nation-building than other emerging states around the world.
In many ways, the decade-and-a-half since the United States and the former trust territories created their compacts of free association has seen progress. Indigenous economies are slowly being built, and growing numbers of educated islanders are choosing to return home to teach, heal and build.
Part of the reason the progress has been as slow as it has is that the United States offered the money without insisting on high levels of accountability. That must change in the case of any future grants.
Slowly but surely the Marshalls and the Federated States will create systems that adequately educate, employ and care for their own citizens.
Until that time, however, a disproportionate share of the burden will continue to fall on their nearest neighbor state: Hawai'i. That's a burden we willingly take up, but it is a burden we should not have to pay for alone.