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Advocates Concerned About Hawai‘i's Decline in Child Well-Being Ranking

Kalihi Kai Elementary School Education Playground
Casey Harlow
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HPR
Kalihi Kai Elementary School

Hawaiʻi children are falling behind—that's according to the latest Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a report highlighting the well-being of children across the country.

When it comes to the overall well-being of children in the state, Hawaiʻi dropped from 17 to 26 in the country in the last year.

The report, released Monday, assesses the well-being of children in the country, using information from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education, and various nonprofit and local agencies. The foundation uses the data to measure four areas annually: education, health, economic well-being, and family and community.

The state's drop in overall rankings from above average to average in the 2021 report is concerning to child advocates. That's primarily because the latest report uses data from 2019—a time when the state's economy was booming.

"In the last Kids Count Data Book, we were 25th in the nation for economic well-being. So just about average for the nation," said Nicole Woo, director of research and economic policy at the Hawai‘i Children's Action Network. "And then the 2021 data book that just came out—we've dropped to 44th in the nation."

children school playground generic elementary
Sophia McCullough

The report measures four indicators to determine economic well-being. Among them are: child poverty, parental employment, housing costs, and school attendance and employment.

Woo said the report specifically measures the number of households that spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

"We fell to 49th in the nation, with 38% of Hawaiʻi's children living in households that are housing cost-burdened," she said. "And this is a reflection of the affordable housing crisis that we all know Hawai‘i has."

Woo said because this report's findings are based on data from 2019, this indicator is likely to worsen when the eviction moratorium expires—and when researchers analyze data from 2020.

Another indicator where the state plunged was the number of teens, aged 16 to 19, not attending school and not working. Woo said the state ranked 47th in the country, with 10% of teens in this category. She believes this indicator is also likely to worsen next year due to the pandemic.

Economic well-being does have an impact on local families and children.

"We know that it took our lowest-income families a decade to recover from the Great Recession," said Ivette Rodriguez Stern, a junior specialist at the University of Hawai‘i's Center on the Family.

"And now, we're once again facing the threat of a larger number of children growing up in economic hardship, which has negative and often long-lasting effects on education and the employment prospects as children age and become adults."

In March 2021, the Census Bureau found that 61% of local households with children reported losing employment income since the pandemic started. The national percentage of similar households reporting lost income was 49%.

preschool playground children honolulu elementary school education
Hawaii Public Radio

Stern said another concern is the state's education ranking in the report. She says the state has lingered in the bottom third of states in recent years - despite the improvements being made in reading and math proficiency in the last decade.

But early education is one indicator the state has traditionally underperformed. The latest report shows that half of the state's keiki were not in preschool.

"Now more than ever, we need to focus on investing in early childhood and K-12 education," said Stern. "Unfortunately other data from the Urban Institute on State Public Spending suggests that Hawai‘i's investments in public education have not been as robust since the Great Recession compared to 20 years ago."

Stern acknowledged that efforts to bolster early education in the state is a step in the right direction, but says there is room for improvement.

In conjunction with early education efforts at the state legislature, Woo said there are steps lawmakers can take to address economic security among local families.

She said affordable housing is one, but restoring state funding to certain education programs and paid family leave could also help.

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