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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 3, 2002

In Hawai'i, we care, but still not enough

The standard way to determine how "well" our community is doing tends to focus on economics. All this is fine, as far as it goes. But economic activity is, at best, only a rough indicator of the quality of life in the community.

No one is going to do away with the economic measuring stick, of course. But there are other measuring tools that can help us determine in different ways how we are doing and where we need improvement.

One of the most intriguing is published by the national United Way, which publishes a state-by-state "quality of life" index. The index helps local United Way officials know where to target their efforts toward charitable help and community building.

In the latest ranking, Hawai'i placed 29th overall among the states, roughly where we have been for the past several years. Our overall "score" is above the national mean, which says we outperformed the nation as a whole. That's the good news. But we are below our heyday performance of 1991, where our ranking was 9th in the nation. Part of our generally high ranking comes because we get strong marks in the quality of our environment, particularly our air pollution rankings.

In other areas, however, our ranking is dismally low. For instance, we are dead last in the percentage of fourth- graders who are at or above proficiency levels in reading.

What is most telling in the statistics, however, are the changes over time since the index was first created in 1988. Where are we making improvement and where are we falling behind? These numbers tell quite interesting tales:

• In the area of the economy and financial well-being, almost all the indicators are down since 1988. In other words, the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in the Islands is growing, the median household income is down and so forth. Considering the nearly decade-long economic malaise we have endured, this may be expected.

The only economic indicator to improve is home affordability, clearly the result of a slump from Japanese "bubble" high prices.

• In education, several indicators are up, a happy piece of news. We are improving our high school dropout rate, our math proficiency scores, our spending on public schools and our pupil-teacher ratios. But 11th-grade writing scores are down, as well as teacher salaries in real dollars.

• Our health statistics, with a few exceptions, are down, a sad report from a place that calls itself the "Health State." Among the health indicators down are the percentage who are medically uninsured, teen birth rates, single-family households, low-birthweight babies and the percentage of high schoolers who use drugs or cigarettes.

• Our public safety figures are improving, and volunteerism and civic engagement remain relatively steady, although voting and per capita contributions to United Way has declined.

These statistics give us guidance as we head into 2002. First and foremost, it appears, we must step up our campaign to get all preschoolers "ready to learn" by the time they hit kindergarten. This is a strong endorsement for the concept of universal quality preschool.

Second, we must reverse the trend of growing numbers of the medically uninsured. This group includes the working poor and "gap-group" seniors.

Hawai'i can take pride that we are steadily and consistently better than the national norm on the United Way "caring index." But as a breakdown of the statistics makes clear, we have a long way to go before we can truly make the claim that, in aloha for our fellow citizens, we are No. 1.