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Federal Pandemic Aid Helps Hawaii Reduce Its Poverty Rate

Buffered by relief programs, like stimulus checks, expanded SNAP benefits and Child Tax Credit payments, the state’s supplemental poverty rate decreased to 10.5 percent in 2019-2021.

(TNS) — Federal relief money and tax credits appear to have helped many Hawaii residents weather the height of the pandemic's economic hardship, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data.

Despite COVID-19 gutting much of Hawaii's economy, a measure of how many people across the state lived in poverty in 2021 declined with the help of federal government assistance targeting low-income households struggling to make financial ends meet amid pandemic-related challenges, Census Bureau data released last month shows.

Even as the pandemic essentially shut down tourism to the islands and caused unemployment to spike, relief programs such as federal stimulus checks, expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, housing assistance payments and the extended Child Tax Credit all combined to soften the blow.

While the decades-old official poverty metric ticked up slightly last year, another more modern metric that factors in Hawaii's high cost of living and federal benefits shows poverty decreased.

Hawaii's official poverty rate—based on income—increased from 9.4 percent in 2019 to 10.1 percent in 2021. Meanwhile, the supplemental poverty measure—based on three-year averages that fold in an accounting of federal stimulus checks, subsidized housing and food stamps—decreased from 13.4 percent in 2017-19 to 10.5 percent in 2019-21, according to Census Bureau data.

What the official poverty rate "is really doing is tracking this idea of what it took to not be poor in the 60s and adjusting for inflation," said, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., who focuses on poverty. In a time when federal relief money was flowing, measuring poverty by income alone paints an incomplete portrait of Hawaii's status.

Through the CARES Act, Hawaii received $121 million to support expanded access to food stamps and $28.3 million to increase funding for child nutrition programs, according to from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The three rounds of federal stimulus checks brought Hawaii households more than $3.5 billion, the data shows. The American Rescue Plan's Child Tax Credit Expansion provided Hawaii families with almost $400 million.

Renters in Hawaii received more than $200 million in assistance, and homeowners took in $50 million, the data shows. People in Hawaii who were homeless or had unstable housing received $17.5 million in emergency housing vouchers, the data shows.

Genevieve Kalama, a 72-year-old Waianae resident and recipient of SNAP benefits, said that after the pandemic she received what's known as DA BUX card, which is issued by a Hawaii Food Basket program. It provides a 50 percent discount on locally grown produce for SNAP recipients. In October 2020 the state funneled $500,000 from the federal CARES Act to the program.

Kalama said, "I love my poi, but because of the pandemic I couldn't eat my poi, " Kalama said, adding, "With the DA BUX card, I could afford one or two bags."

Nicole Woo, director of research and economic policy at the Hawaii Children's Action Network, said, "All the federal relief helped avoid poverty, especially in Hawaii because our economy was really badly hit and we needed it."

Between 2019 and 2021, census data shows median household incomes in Hawaii dropping by 3.6 percent, or $3,200. The official poverty rate found that 28, 000 more individuals and 6,400 more families were living in poverty in 2021 than 2019, according to a news release issued by the nonprofit Hawaii Budget &Policy Center. Meanwhile, poverty among Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders decreased by 3.2 percent, about 6,500 individuals, from 2019 to 2021, correlating with a 16 percent, or $11,000, increase in annual pay, the release said.

(c)2022 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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