Helping The Poorest Of The Poor

Susan Page
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Wednesday - June 06, 2007
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I often get asked, “With all the problems we have here in Hawaii, why do you go to Africa to help there?” In fact, in response to my recent column about giving cows to Kenyan widows, Laurie Yamamoto wrote to MidWeek, “we should remember there are many families right here in Honolulu who are also hungry.”

By pointing out Africa’s plight, it’s never to diminish Hawaii’s poor. I feel for any child that doesn’t have the best life possible. Children have no choices, while adults often make lousy ones that hurt the children.

But the term “poor” is relative. AIDS orphans in African nations - 1.2 million in South Africa, 550,000 in Malawi, and more than 12 million in Sub-Saharan Africa - make any “poor” child in the U.S. seem comfortable in comparison.

The question is, why then are there poor in Hawaii? Our economy is booming.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since Alabama’s recent tax relief legislation in 2007 “Hawaii’s income tax is on course to become the harshest in the nation on low-income families. Hawaii will levy the highest tax in the nation on families of three and four at the poverty line, and on families of three earning 25 percent more than the poverty line. And it will climb into the top three in every measure of income tax burden on the working poor. Overall, Hawaii’s income tax system will be the nation’s most burdensome on families working to escape poverty.”

Hawaii has a population of approximately 1.2 million people. Aren’t there enough social services?

As of fiscal year ending June 30, 2005 Hawaii’s Department of Health and Human Services annual audit says the amount spent on the poor (including a $10 million administration cost) was $165 billion. This expenditure includes (rounded) $980 million on Health Care Programs. $356 million on Welfare and Support, $264 million on Child Welfare and Adult community care programs, $23 million on vocational rehab for the blind, and $17 million on Youth Prevention, Delinquency and Correction Services, and $7,000 for a Status of Women Committee.

In the small South African nation of Swaziland, population around 1.1 million, the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is $984 million to $768 million less than what Hawaii spends just on human services. There are few social services in Swaziland, though the official government website has laid out a plan to include, among other things, “the improvement of welfare of children and youths in prison.” Children are jailed for such crimes as stealing food and, according to Janine Maxwell, vice president of Heart for Africa, who has visited one prison, the conditions are beyond Dickens’ imagination.

Hawaii’s unemployment rate in April 2007 was 2.4 percent. Swaziland’s is 40 percent.

On Oahu alone, there are 250 charitable agencies to feed our hungry, including at least 33 faith-based initiatives and hundreds of churches that support the poor and homeless.

Last year, the Hawaii Foodbank distributed 8.2 million pounds of food and 1.6 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables. The criteria for eligibility to receive food is if the applicant missed two meals a week with the national guidelines being fairly subjective: Hunger is defined as the uneasy or painful sensation caused by a recurrent or involuntary lack of food.

The total number of orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa was 48.3 million at the end of 2005, 12 million because of HIV/AIDS.

There are an estimated 95,000 orphans in Swaziland with around 11,000 living in child-run households. A 6-year-old child takes care of her three siblings of 4, 2 and 9 months in a mud hut, if so blessed. The local dump is the best resource for food, if one’s nearby. If these children eat two meals a week, they’re lucky.

Fun fact: Malawi, another of the world’s poorest countries where I’ll be this summer, has a population of 13 million and only six dentists.

I commend any person actively helping Hawaii’s poor. But until our cost of living, affordable housing, taxes, immigration law and drug abuse issues are addressed, the numbers of poor will only increase. The taxes we pay are themselves a significant contribution to Hawaii’s poor.

I will continue to speak on Africa’s orphans and help where I feel the need is greatest.

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