Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 26, 2002

One in four Hawaiian children below poverty line

 •  Percentage of Hawai'i residents below the poverty level in 1999
 •  Previous story: Hawai'i's private schools still popular, census shows

By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer

About one in four children identified as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander is living below the poverty level, according to data released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Seli Savaiinaea, left, and Eric Westfall unload donations at the Hawaii Food Bank, which helps feed the poor. Census figures show the "Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander only" category has the highest rates of poverty.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The "Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander only" category also leads racial groups in percentage of individuals living in poverty — 21 percent — and in percentage of families living in poverty — 18.5 percent, according to the latest census numbers, collected in 1999.

In Hawai'i, 14 percent of children live below the national poverty level, defined as $16,895 income for a family of four. Of "Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander only" children, 26 percent live below the poverty level.

An official with Kamehameha Schools said yesterday that actual figures are higher when Hawai'i's cost of living is taken into account. The poverty level set by the state for 1999 is $19,210 for a family of four. That would push even more Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders below the poverty level, said Shawn Kana'iaupuni, director of policy analysis and system evaluation for Kamehameha Schools.

Kana'iaupuni said the census category accounts for only about a third of Native Hawaiians in the Islands. About 64 percent of people who are part-Hawaiian put themselves in the "two or more race" category, she said.

The 2000 census counted 239,655 Native Hawaiians in the state. Figures that break down the racial categories by ethnic group will be released later, but Kana'iaupuni said there is value in looking at statistics for the "Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander only" category.

Gale Flynn, planning and evaluation manager for the Queen Lili'uokalani Children's Center, said the census numbers come as no surprise. "Native Hawaiians turn up overrepresented in all the poverty indicators," she said. The center provides services to needy children, with preference given to those of Hawaiian ancestry.

For example, 61 percent of Native Hawaiian children in the state's public schools qualify for free or reduced lunch, Flynn said. The situation may be worsening, as there has been a slight increase since 2000 in the number of Native Hawaiian children eligible for food stamps and other public assistance, Flynn said.

She and Kana'iaupuni agree that one major cause for poverty among Native Hawaiians is lower levels of education, which translate to lower income. In addition, a large number of Native Hawaiians live in rural areas, particularly on the Big Island, far from better-paying jobs, According to the census figures released this week, the median family income for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders in 1999 was $45,293, compared with $57,927 for whites and $63,222 for Asians. The per-capita income figures were $14,375 for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, $22,884 for Asians, and $29,542 for whites.

Kana'iaupuni said non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders tend to drag down income averages for the category because many Samoans, Tongans and Micronesians are immigrants with language difficulties and other issues that affect employment.

When 1990 census figures were broken down in racial detail, only 14 percent of Native Hawaiians fell below the poverty rate, compared with more than 20 percent of other Pacific Islanders, Kana'iauipuni said.

Flynn said another consideration is that Native Hawaiians tend to have larger families, which boosts the number of children living in poverty.

The census shows a smaller number of "Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders only" respondents living in poverty (23,609) than either Asians (35,399) or whites (26,453) — which might be borne out by their relative population size — but the number of children living below the poverty level is higher in that group than for the other two: 10,375 Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander children vs. 6,726 Asian children and 4,776 white children.

Flynn cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the census numbers. "There's been a lot of attention paid to poverty ... but that's only one factor to look at when profiling a racial group. We don't look at strengths very well. There are positive things going on that are never reported in the data."

For example, Native Hawaiians benefit from strong family attachments, Flynn said. "The children are still very connected with their 'ohana."

Hawai'i residents who defined themselves as American Indian/Alaska Native also showed high rates of poverty, according to the census, but their overall numbers are small — about 0.2 percent of the state's population of 1.2 million.

Asians make up 41 percent of Hawai'i's population, whites 23 percent, Native Hawaiians about 20 percent, Hispanics/Latinos 7 percent, and black/African Americans about 2 percent.

Kana'iaupuni said the previous census lumped Native Hawaiians with Asians, so the new category is an improvement. But Hawai'i's unique demographics, which include many multiracial families, requires even more refinement to get an accurate picture of the Native Hawaiian population, she said.

Reach Christie Wilson at (808) 244-4880 or cwilson@honoluluadvertiser.com.