Help our youths, or they'll leave
By Mike Markrich
Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again all the while hoping for a different result.
In Hawai'i, we face this problem with our lack of investment in housing and education for our young people.
If any force of nature is going to hurt Hawai'i in the future, it's not going to be a hurricane. It's going to be the resentment of an entire generation of local young people who will feel that they grew up in a time when no one cared about them.
"I've never seen this level of hopelessness in Hawai'i since 1985," said Kailua resident James Howe. "In 1985, it was the same thing. We had the Japanese bubble (economy), Now, like then, young people growing up in Hawai'i looked around at the high prices (of houses) and the enormous wealth of the rich people who are moving here and said to themselves, 'How am I ever going to make it here? I'll never own my home.'
"They either stay and do their best to make it or they move away. It's a huge loss of intellectual capital that is one day going to have a big impact on this small state."
Howe's expertise in this area is that he is a lifeguard chief and talks with young people every day.
The problem facing Hawai'i is simple math. As of the most recent census, the number of those age 60 and older is approximately 19 percent — 230,000 people out of a population of 1.2 million. This is nearly one in five people.
As the number of elderly has increased, a significant decrease has occurred in the size of Hawai'i's youth population (those younger than 20).
Since statehood, the proportion of youth in the total population has decreased from 43 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 2002. This proportion is slightly below the national average of 28 percent. The impact of the lack of youthful workers means that in the future, there will be fewer workers to support the elderly.
And they will incur incredibly high costs. Over the past 30 years, the number of people in the 85-and-older category has grown at a rate of nearly 400 percent. Many of these people have chronic conditions and require expensive housing and care.
Historically in Hawai'i, a significant percentage of individuals in this category have chosen to pay their costs through Medicaid, a federal/state program for the disabled and elderly who are impoverished.
Because of the Bush administration tax cuts and the impact of Hurricane Katrina, the size of federal block grants available to reimburse states for Medicaid is expected to diminish.
Fewer federal dollars means the spending of more state dollars. Since these dollars will have to be taken from somewhere, they will have to come from schools, roads, hospitals, affordable housing, public health and environmental protection. Soon the people of Hawai'i will be forced to make cruel choices at the existing tax levels: They will have to ask themselves whether they are going to be paying for better public schools and affordable housing for the young or care for the old.
They won't be able to do both.
TAX BASE SHRINKING
One of Hawai'i's significant problems is its shrinking tax base. Most of the elderly receive Social Security or nontaxable pension income. On average, those over 65 receive 41 percent of their income from government. Because they are on fixed incomes and are uncertain about their future income stream, they are generally against raising taxes.
As the oldest members of society in Hawai'i struggle with old age, the youngest suffer from poverty, a critical lack of housing, struggling public schools and no place to live.
Kallie Keith, a Maui resident, said: "Many (local ) young couples on Maui delay marriage because they know they can't afford a place to live. So they live together at home and have babies. Then they often break apart."
The children raised by the family without a father figure are becoming familiar sights in local communities. The lack of fathers, the prevalence of alcohol and harmful drugs such as ice and the lack of social order undermine society.
As the young parents and their parents work, the elderly grandparents end up watching the young children. More pressure comes from the influx of skilled workers from the Mainland who increase the level of competition and social stress.
All of these pressures have a detrimental effect on the young.
There were once people who thought in terms of investing in the young people of Hawai'i. The great, long ago Democratic Revolution of 1954 in Hawai'i was predicated on Democrats demanding lives that were better for the young as well as the old. It was an era when politicians were committed to good public schools and affordable houses for the masses.
The administration of Gov. Linda Lingle has come up with plans to help with the affordable housing issue. The Republicans generally believe in private industry or faith-based groups to handle this problem.
However, the number of new homes that can be built this way is small relative to the size of the problem. There is an immediate demand for 20,000 affordable homes. Faith-based groups, however good their intentions, can build only a few at a time.
This year, 4,000 new home units were built on O'ahu, 8,000 statewide. That's the best year for housing in many years. Nearly all of these new units sell for $500,000 or more. Developers have no interest in building homes that won't make money so long as new houses priced at market rates are selling.
The city and county, as well as the state, can continue on the present course with predictable results or they can choose to think out of the box and take bold steps.
Instead, let's increase the density of the entire area and encourage 10-story buildings that are a mix of residential, commercial and affordable units.
Einstein became famous by expressing the then-unique thought that everything is relative. Politically, because the young don't vote in the same numbers as other voters, the easiest thing to do is to ignore them.
Hawai'i has tried this and is getting terrible results. When a society's nursing homes and prisons are working at 95 percent capacity, it's an indication that something is seriously wrong.
Maybe the time has come to do things differently. If we show that we believe in the young people of Hawai'i enough to make home ownership possible for them, maybe they won't mind so much that the burden for caring for the rest of us falls so heavily on them.