Paradise isn’t what it used to be. There’s a dark side to America’s 50th state that tourists seldom see, but the growing pains are all too obvious to its inhabitants.
After three decades of economic growth and prosperity, Hawaii took a downturn 15 years ago and the Aloha state has never fully recovered. In most respects things are getting worse every year.
The effects have been devastating to those living on the margins of island society, particularly native Hawaiians.
Other ethnic minorities have also been forced to bear the burden. At the same time, however, many hotels and other big businesses in Hawaii are reaping record-level profits today.
The statistics tell a story the Hawaii Visitors Bureau would rather not see in print:
In a state that has the most expensive cost of living in the US, one-in-10 residents lives under the federal poverty level. A conservative estimate is that 30,000 people are homeless, but the actual number is likely to be far higher.
Hawaii has one of the worst hard drug problems of any state. The state and federal government spent hundreds of millions of dollars on three decades of helicopter raids on rural marijuana growers and doled out prison sentences equal to murder convictions in some cases.
Marijuana is now scarce and prohibitively expensive. The drug of choice is the much-cheaper crystal methamphetamine, a highly-addictive stimulant that causes violent behaviour.
The meth epidemic and widespread poverty has resulted in a state prison system that is bursting at the seams, corrupt and inhumane.
Unable to afford the cost of building new prisons, Hawaii at first assigned three or four prisoners to cells built for two with the extra inmates sleeping on floors besides the toilet.
Later the state shipped several hundred inmates to mainland prisons where incarceration expenses were cheaper.
Native Hawaiians constitute roughly 20 per cent of the state population, but they represent 54 per cent of the prison population.
Not coincidentally, they also have the lowest per capita income, the highest poverty rate and the shortest lifespan of any ethnic group in Hawaii.
Hawaii public school students receive a very poor education by any standard of measurement. They consistently rank among the lowest of any state in test scores.
Education reform has been talked to death by every governor and legislature of the past 30 years, but nothing substantial has been done. This has led to a "brain drain" in the islands. Most of the bright students who manage to learn something in spite of the handicapped school system leave Hawaii for foreign colleges and careers.
In the 1980s, Hawaii gained the enviable reputation of providing medical insurance to the highest percentage of residents of any state. A decade after the state ended dental cover, toothless smiles are commonplace among the poor. Tens of thousands of residents have no medical insurance at all.
Despite higher profits for many businesses, jobs are scarce and most of the available work pays minimum wage or close to it.
Hotel occupancy rates have slowly reached the late 1980s peak again, but hotel owners now operate with far fewer employees.
This resulted in less service to guests and contributed to the tarnishing of Hawaii’s reputation as the premiere tourist destination in the world.
In some cases, the lives of the working poor are worse than the unemployed. Among other things, they don’t qualify for state financial assistance or full food stamp benefits.
Even during the height of the hotel building boom in the 1980s, workers in the upscale South Kohala district of the Big Island were forced to sleep in their cars or public parks because they couldn’t afford the high rents on hotel pay.
Today most of the Island of Hawaii (Big Island) as well as the islands of Molokai, Lanai and Kauai are economic wastelands with little opportunity to make a decent living.
On Kauai workers often share apartments or small houses with several other workers because rents are too expensive for one or two individuals to afford. On every island married couples with children often work two jobs each to make ends meet – if they are fortunate enough to find that many jobs, even at minimum wage.
Aside from housing, transportation and food expenses contribute heavily to Hawaii’s staggering cost of living. The prices of gasoline, mandatory auto insurance, used cars and repair work are considerably higher than the mainland.
And only the city of Honolulu has reliable public transportation. On the other islands owning a car is a necessity to be able to work or look for jobs.
Hawaii imports two-thirds of its food from the mainland and locally-grown food is expensive due to high land prices. Although a relative scarcity of farmable land exists in the islands, some economists have concluded that land prices are artificially inflated through manipulation by the Big Five, giant land-holding companies owned by descendents of the five most influential missionary families who settled in Hawaii two centuries ago.
But critics argue that even the food imported from the mainland shouldn’t cost as much as it does.
One supermarket manager admitted candidly that Matson Navigation shipping adds an average of only 18 per cent to the cost of imported food. Yet prices range between 30 and 40 per cent higher than California where the Matson ships pick up the food for delivery to Hawaii.
Frank Fasi, the populist Honolulu mayor for several years, once called Hawaii’s high cost of living "suspicious" and vowed to investigate and find the hidden reasons behind it. Fasi subsequently ran for governor three times and lost each election.
Cec Heftel, a later candidate for governor who promised economic reform, was far ahead in the polls until he was defeated by a last-minute smear campaign.
After Hawaii’s economy stagnated, political corruption became rampant.
Two members of the Honolulu city council went to prison for taking bribes and other crimes. State department heads were indicted for various offences.
Jeremy Harris, another populist Honolulu mayor, was prevented from running for governor following a suspicious investigation that led to no criminal charges against him.
Meanwhile, the situation grows worse daily for the vast majority of people in paradise and it’s unlikely to reverse direction anytime soon.
Two years ago, Linda Lingle was elected as the state’s first Republican governor in nearly half a century. Lingle won by promising education reform among other things, but so far she hasn’t accomplished anything more than her predecessors to improve the school system.
On the drug problem she has followed the GOP party line in advocating more prison space over medical treatment, ignoring relatives of prison inmates who carry signs that say: "Addiction is a disease, not a crime."
In the past, Hawaii was known for its aloha spirit and laid-back lifestyle.
But by the early 1990s tourism, by then underpinning the state’s economy, was under threat from cheaper competition.
The Gulf War and early 1990s recession lost Hawaii its status and a lot of its visitors. The end of the Cold War saw cutbacks in military spending.
Economic problems have made it harder for Hawaii to sustain its highly-centralised government and Linda Lingle’s victory implies a backlash at some of the highest taxes in the US.
Now aloha is difficult to find as various ethnic groups vie with each other for the last crumbs of the once-large economic pie. And the pace of life has become frenetic in too many ways.
As one long-time resident commented: "Hawaii is turning into one of those Caribbean tourist islands where you have fancy hotels and a tiny rich neighbourhood and the rest of the island is a shantytown of poverty and crime."