Native Hawaiians Are Leaving Hawaiʻi – and What That Means

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Ka Wai Ola

By John K.S. Aeto, The Kalaimoku Group

Shape our future starts here. United States Census 2020

This ʻOhana Counts Sign
Signage encouraging Native Hawaiian families to complete the 2020 Census. – Photo: Jhewel-Georlyn Felipe

Collected every 10 years, the next US Census is set for April 1, 2020. The population of the United States will once again be counted, including demographic, social and economic characteristics. For Native Hawaiians, the 2020 US Census may mark a major historic milestone.

The last census in 2010 counted 527,077 Native Hawaiians living in the United States, with 237,107—nearly half of them—living on the continent, while 289,970 live in Hawaiʻi. It begs the question: Will more Native Hawaiians be counted living outside of Hawaiʻi in the 2020 US Census?

In the 2000 census, citizens could report having more than one race for the first time. This resulted in a huge increase of Native Hawaiians (139.5%) reflected in the census, overall, as compared to 1990 census numbers. It also highlighted the growing trend of Native Hawaiians leaving Hawaiʻi. In fact, the 2010 census showed there were more “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders” living in Los Angeles County than in either Maui County (Maui, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi) or Kauaʻi County (Kauaʻi and Niʻihau).

In a more recent report, another 5,071 Native Hawaiians moved outside of Hawaiʻi between 2013-2017, according to the Hawaiʻi State Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism. The majority moved to California, Nevada or Utah.

Native Hawaiians are not the only Polynesians moving away from their home islands. In the 2010 census the number of Samoans living on the US continent was nearly four times greater than the number of Samoans living in American Samoa.

Most leave for the same reasons that non-Native Hawaiian residents decide to leave Hawaiʻi: more opportunity, more resources, a lower cost of living and higher salaries.

Two months ago, in a qualitative study, Kamehameha Schools’ Strategy and Innovation Group set out to uncover why Native Hawaiians are leaving. They hope to use the findings to determine if they should implement policy or strategy changes that may help Native Hawaiians choose to stay and thrive in the islands.

“What happens if Hawaiʻi is no longer a place where Native Hawaiians can have a good quality of life and afford to live?” asks Shawn Kanaʻiaupuni, executive strategy consultant for Kamehameha. “I’m hypothesizing that for many Hawaiians the affordability of housing is an issue,” she adds. “For example, lower-middle-class Native Hawaiians who are in the gap group that can’t qualify for federal aid or even college financial aid for their children; they might decide that they have to leave to find a more comfortable life in another place.”

In a way, it’s a new Polynesian migration; only this time it’s to the continental US. Historically, Polynesians migrated to Hawaiʻi in two waves: the first from the Marquesas Islands sometime between 124 and 1120 AD, and then later from Tahiti.

There really is not much difference why Polynesians migrate today as compared to the past. People were looking for more opportunities and better resources on new land they could settle.

Regardless of the reasons early Polynesians decided to migrate, the data is pointing toward 2020 possibly being the year that Native Hawaiians living on the continent outnumber those living in Hawaiʻi.

For Native Hawaiian organizations funded by the government, the results of the 2020 census could potentially open discussions among their leadership about how – or if – their programs should extend to the continent. In the case of Papa Ola Lōkahi, a non-profit responsible for addressing Native Hawaiian health and well-being as outlined by the Native Hawaiian Health Care Improvement Act, assisting the growing population on the continent is something already on their mind.

“What’s going to happen is really a huge question, so being mindful and prepared is really important,” says Sheri-Ann Daniels, executive director of Papa Ola Lōkahi. The federal Act allows the organization to assist with Native Hawaiian health issues, regardless of location, and there are no stipulations regarding how money should be distributed. But it’s an unprecedented scenario. Daniels says she’d be interested in looking at partnerships with other organizations to reach Native Hawaiians on the continent

“If you’ve ever had a chance to talk to many of the Hawaiians living on the continent, they do feel isolated,” she says. “I think that’s something that we’ve got to look at as a community, because I don’t know that everybody agrees. But, at least under my tenure, a Hawaiian is a Hawaiian is a Hawaiian. Geography doesn’t matter.”