17 percent of Hawaii kids live in poverty


More than 50,000 of the state’s kids — or 17 percent — lived in poverty in 2011, up from 13 percent in 2005. Hawaii County, in particular, continues to have the highest child poverty rate, increasing from 18 percent in 2008 to almost 30 percent in 2011, according to statistics released Monday.

Hawaii’s future depends on the fostering of the next generation’s health and well-being. A strong foundation helps ensure positive life outcomes while adverse experiences can have lasting effects throughout a person’s lifetime, experts say.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book sheds light on the importance of making early childhood investments, which have eroded in recent years because of budget cuts. Even as the nation’s economy recovers, there are lingering effects from the recession and the economic conditions for Hawaii’s children remain a concern, said Ivette Rodrigues Stern, junior specialist at the Center on the Family and director of the Hawaii Kids Count Project.

Poverty was defined in 2011 as an income of $22,811 for a family of two adults and two children. However, the foundation’s researchers estimate families typically need twice that amount to meet their basic needs.

More than 30 percent of parents statewide lacked secure employment, a 6 percent increase from 2008. Almost half of Hawaii’s children live in homes where more than 30 percent of the monthly household income is spent on rent, mortgage, taxes, insurance or related expenses, the data book stated.

All economic measures have worsened over the past several years, and Hawaii ranked in the bottom third — 34th out of 50 states — in this domain. The negative effects of poverty increase the chances of poor outcomes for youth and young adults, such as teen pregnancy, not graduating from high school, poor health and lack of secure employment. These factors are a challenge for the best of families and for those struggling with even greater obstacles.

With 8.4 percent and 8.3 percent respectively, Hawaii Island and Kauai had the most families at risk in 2009, defined as those with a first birth to an unmarried mother younger than 20 who lacks a high school diploma.

Now, it’s even more important to build an early care and educational system of high quality, Stern said. She acknowledged some of the progress currently being made by Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the state Department of Education. Abercrombie signed a bill Monday that expanded early childhood education.

The data book says there were more 3- to 4-year-old children attending preschool during the 2009-11 period than there were in the preceding years — an achievement that was also touted during last year’s data book results.

Dr. Grace Fong, interim director of the Center on the Family, agrees with the importance of focusing more on the early years.

“High quality early experiences provide children with ‘roots’ (a sense of self-identity and belonging) and ‘wings (the confidence and freedom to explore and engage in increasingly complex learning), which are essential elements in their healthy development,” Fong said. “High quality early care and educational experiences are critical for children to be ready to succeed in school and in life, and according to the research, these experiences are especially important for children who are at highest risk of poor outcomes. The investments we make now in providing our young children with high quality care and education can improve their chances for experiencing better outcomes in the future.”

Bright spots for Hawaii were ranking 16th in the family and community well-being domain, as well as 18th in the health domain. Three conditions — low-birthweight babies, child and teen death rates, and children without health insurance — showed little to no change over the examined period. There were also no statistically significant changes in the number of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs. The most recent teen birth data available showed an improvement in the teen birth rate since the mid-2000s. Hawaii County’s rate of pregnancy among 15- to 19-year-old women, per 1,000 women, was 61.3 in 2005 and 2009, 75.2 in 2006, 63.8 in 2007 and 57.9 in 2008.

Hawaii also made some gains in education, though the state is ranked 33rd. The number of fourth-graders not proficient in reading and the percent of eighth-graders not proficient in math both decreased between 2005 and 2011, while the percent of high school students in the state not graduating on time remained relatively stable.

Overall, Hawaii’s ranking in child well-being was in the middle of the pack nationally.

The state placed 25th and was based on data on 16 indicators in four essential areas — education, health, economics and the family/community context. The data book, available at datacenter.kidscount.org, provides a yearly scorecard revealing how each state and the nation is doing on improving the lives of children and families.

For more than 20 years, the Baltimore-based foundation has provided this data and trend analysis in an effort to help policymakers in their assessment of how better to serve their communities.

It also seeks to raise the visibility of the needs and problems of coming generations, generating not only more public awareness, but also strategies to combat these issues, Stern said.