It is pretty obvious to anyone who does not willfully choose to be blind that too many ordinary rank and file workers in Hawai‘i are struggling to keep their heads above water. I fully support the call for a living wage for our friends, family members and neighbors who simply cannot get by on a full-time job at $10.10 an hour–our current minimum wage. But as a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs I feel a particular obligation to speak for the nearly 5000 native Hawaiians who currently make up over 14% of our state’s minimum, or close to minimum wage workers. I see their struggle. More than 50 percent of native Hawaiians are burdened by having to direct a third or more of their income just to rent! A 2016 statewide poll revealed that above 70 percent of native Hawaiians live paycheck to paycheck. A third say they struggle to pay for food. This cannot continue.
Our state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) says that a living wage today should be $17 an hour–and that’s just for a single person with no children. Food, rent, essentials. No luxuries. I don’t expect lawmakers to wave a magic wand and move the minimum wage up to $17 immediately. But consider this: if the minimum wage in Hawai‘i were raised to $17 by 2024, nearly 13,000 Native Hawaiians, or more than a third of Native Hawaiian workers, would see their lives improve. But making the minimum wage a living wage also delivers a benefit to those not on minimum wage now, whose wages will also go up. If you count those who would be indirectly affected, over 16,000 or close to 50 percent of Native Hawaiian workers would benefit. A living wage will help thousands climb out of poverty.
Some business groups have urged lawmakers to go slow. They fear the impact on their bottom line. I understand that. But as a businesswoman myself, I would ask them to remember that when you improve wages for those who do not make enough to pay for necessities for their family, you can depend on them to immediately spend the extra money on things they could not previously afford.
The extra money our workers will make if we enact a living wage will allow them to purchase, not just goods, but critical services, such as childcare. I’ve seen too many families who are unable to give the children the attention they need because they are trying to pull income from two, sometimes three, minimum wage jobs. They are overworked, and their health suffers. Kids, meanwhile, fend for themselves with very little supervision. Juvenile delinquency, poor performance at school and failure to graduate are the inevitable outcomes.
Making the minimum wage a true living wage addresses multiple socio-economic challenges. Women my age remember when “a minimum-wage job could support a family of three,” as Senator Elizabeth Warren recently pointed out. But she also noted that “Today, a full-time minimum-wage job in America won’t keep a mama and a baby out of poverty.” It certainly does not keep the many kūpuna who are still working at low level jobs out of poverty or allow them to feed their mo‘opuna as well as they should. Kūpuna who care for their grandchildren in the absence of their parents, do not see the minimum wage as a “training wage,” a term that is being bandied around as an excuse to pay people less than they deserve. They are not “training” to climb the employment ladder. They are simply trying to earn a living. I ask lawmakers to do right by them and enact a living wage.