Children In The Chains Of Poverty

A week ago Monday, the front-page headline on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser read: “Chains of poverty shackle more keiki.”

In the accompanying story, Nanea Kalani reported that “the number of children growing up poor in Hawaii has continued to climb, with the families of about one in six keiki living in poverty, according to new data from the University of Hawaii Center on the Family.

“Some 51,000 children in Hawaii – or 17 percent of the under-18 population – were in families with incomes below the $22,811 federal poverty line for a four-person household … up from 12.5 percent under the poverty line in 2005.”

Frightening news. First, because the cost of housing, food and practically everything else in Hawaii drives the state’s real poverty point far higher than $22,811. And second, because the consequences of growing up in poverty in Hawaii, or anywhere else in these United States, is written in school failure, unemployment, teen pregnancy, domestic violence and broken homes.

The rising number of Hawaii’s children living in poverty can be attributed in part to the Great Recession through which the nation still struggles. Its fundamental cause lies much deeper, however, in the exportation of well-paid working-class jobs to lower-wage countries in Asia and Latin America.

For the poor kids of the nation’s Rust Belt, that’s meant shuttered steel and automobile factories that helped working-class immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe send their kids to college. In Hawaii, industrial agriculture did the same for immigrant families from East and Southeast Asia.

Few think those high-paid jobs for the minimally educated will ever return to Hawaii’s or the Mainland’s shores. An educated – nay, a well-educated – workforce will be required to break the cycle of poverty.

Kalani’s reporting found that most of the links in the “chains of poverty” have only grown stronger: 32 percent of Hawaii’s poor kids live with parents who “lack secure employment,” compared to 26 percent in 2008; 46 percent live in households where more than 30 percent of pretax income goes to rent or a mortgage payment, compared to 37 percent in 2005; and 5 percent live in neighborhoods in which 30 percent or more households have incomes below the poverty line, compared to 2 percent in 2000.

But there is at least one marginally weaker link: 48 percent of Hawaii’s poor kids did not attend preschool from 2009 to 2011, down from 52 percent from 2005 to ’07. Not much to crow about, to be sure, except for another event that took place a week ago Monday.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed Senate Bill 1093 that, in the words of the governor’s press people, “transforms early education in Hawaii and ensures that all island keiki have access to preschool.” Said Abercrombie at the signing ceremony: “In my 2013 State of the State, I described any failure to address early learning development as one of our state’s greatest unfunded liabilities; this bill breaks from the status quo and provides our first down payment on ensuring Hawaii’s keiki are prepared to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

“No other piece of legislation this year was more important. I firmly believe that giving keiki a strong early childhood education is the best, most effective way to empower their success in life.”

The governor is sometimes given to hyperbole, but not in this instance. Hawaii’s wealthy have always seen to the education of their children, whatever the price. Access to early childhood education may be the only possible means left to equalize the growing gulf between Hawaii’s children of privilege and its children of poverty.