Welfare Reform Moves Ahead in Hawaii Despite Hard Times


HONOLULU - While most of the United States enjoys an economic boom that has lasted longer than any previous peacetime expansion, Hawaii's Pacific paradise image has lost its glitter for many residents who are experiencing hard times in the island state.

Those who have jobs, whether in the struggling private sector or on the public payroll where a wage freeze has been imposed, share nervous concerns about the future of this underachieving tourist site. However, a declining welfare caseload may indicate there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Hawaii's trouble signs, which have been appearing since the 1991 Gulf War, include:

The hotel industry reported its 21st consecutive down month in January.

The visitor volume from Japan, with its high unemployment, spreading bankruptcies and an unfavorable yen-dollar exchange rate, has declined significantly.

California's recovery has led to a pickup in visitors from that state, but West Coast tourist traffic has not regained its 1980's strength.

Hawaii's December unemployment measured 5.4 percent, down slightly from November, but still higher than the national average. Increases in bankruptcies (5,813) and foreclosures (3,538) set annual filing records for the state in 1998.

For the past nine years, Hawaii's economy has trailed the mainland. While the nation experienced 6.1 percent growth, Hawaii had 2.2 percent real growth, say state economists -- an estimate private economists would reduce by half -- and little or no growth is projected this year.

Cumulative retail dollar totals for the state's major shopping centers also are down, though some individual centers show gains.

The number and percentage of Hawaii residents living below the poverty level have increased. The U.S. Census Bureau, measuring between 1990 and 1995, found Hawaii with 115,876 people below the poverty line, up from 88,405 five years earlier. The percentage rose from 8.3 percent to 9.9 percent.

More than fifteen percent of the residents of the Big Island of Hawaii are considered below poverty level, a higher-than-national-average that qualifies the Big Island for special federal aid.

Against this grim backdrop, state officials are struggling with some success to implement the 1996 welfare reform law, which imposes a two-year limit on public assistance for those who fail to go to work.

Susan Chandler, the state Human Services director, recently underwent a generally friendly state senate confirmation hearing for a second term as Hawaii's welfare chief. Criticism leveled against her had little to do with the pressure to find jobs for people on welfare.

The state auditor, some legislators and other critics focused more on the problems her department has protecting children against family abuse than on welfare issues. Chandler is likely to be reconfirmed.

In an earlier appearance before the legislature, Chandler and other DHS officials projected considerable huge savings from progress already made in reducing the number of recipients on general assistance (mostly single and disabled) from 9,000 in 1996 to 5,600 now and increasing the number of persons on temporary assistance who have found work from 4,000 in April 1997 to 7,900 last November.

Money saved as a result of these changes could total $43 million over two years, the director said, and will be reinvested in providing daycare for children of newly-employed welfare recipients. Children of working single parents are a DHS priority. The state has exempted from the work requirement recipients who have been abuse victims or who can document the threat of abuse against them.

However, State Sen. Bob Nakata of Oahu, a longtime champion of low-income residents, says the progress the state has made in getting people off the welfare rolls may be illusory. Nakata worries that welfare recipients may be placed in low- or non-paying volunteer jobs that have limited value to them, or in training programs for which they are unsuited, to meet the federal requirements for keeping people busy. 


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