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Nonprofits seek help as poverty hits 15 percent in Hawai‘i

Child &Family Service put out a call to action to other nonprofits on Monday to join it in the battle to fight the harmful effects of poverty in Hawai‘i, where an estimated 15 percent of families are living below federal poverty guidelines.

Amanda Pump, president and CEO of the 125-year-old CFS, met with about 30 nonprofit leaders and partners at the Prince Waikiki to discuss the generational cycle of poverty in Hawai‘i and share the results of Transition to Success, a pilot program that CFS used on Kaua‘i and Maui, which empowered its clients to begin finding their way out of poverty.

“In 1964, President Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty during his first State of the Union address. At that time nearly 20 percent of Americans across our nation were living in poverty, and he considered it a national disgrace,” Pump said.

“Johnson believed that poverty was not solely a result of individual moral failings, but rather a societal failure. He identified root causes such as a lack of education, training, medical care, housing and decent communities.

“We’re still coping with the same issues in our community. It seems like we pass it along. But what if we said today, ‘It’s my kuleana to help’? You all were invited because it is our collective ownership to address this issue.”

As of 2022, Pump said, the official poverty rate in the U.S. was still at more than 11 percent, and the situation in Hawai‘i is more dire. The ALICE in Hawai‘i: 2022 Facts and Figures report noted a sharp increase in the number of households pushed below the poverty line, which grew from 9 percent in 2018 to 15 percent in 2022.

Pump said some 44 percent of the state was below the ALICE (asset-limited, income- constrained, employed) threshold, or the average income required to afford the basic necessities for living.

“So comparably, a little more than half the state could benefit from this model. This isn’t a shock to anyone here. Hawai‘i has one of the highest costs of living. We have the lowest employment rates, but we are struggling so much,” she said. “Hawai‘i ˆsland has the highest rate of poverty and the worst health outcomes in our state, so we have to expand TTS there.”

Pump said over the past five years, CFS has seen the percentage of clients who meet the federal poverty guidelines across its programs rise to 83 percent from 69 percent. She said some 98 percent of CFS clients are now below the ALICE threshold.

Other nonprofits in attendance, like the Hawai‘i Foodbank, also note increasing needs. Hawai‘i Foodbank President and CEO Amy Miller told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “We are seeing significant increases. This last quarter, we served an average of 159,000 individuals per month (on O‘ahu and Kaua‘i). That’s a 28 percent increase over the same time frame last year.”

Miller said Hawai‘i Foodbank officials believe that food costs, which have gone up 25 percent over the last year, have squeezed families.

“ALICE families are kind of loosely defined as being one paycheck away from disaster. I would postulate that food prices going up 25 percent is a disaster — you just can’t make it work anymore,” she said.

Pump said data from the TTS pilot “demonstrates transformative change that benefits Hawai‘i’s people.”

She said the TTS pilot, which served 986 participants from 2016 to 2023 on Maui and Kaua‘i, resulted in “statistically significant” improvements in 63 percent, or 12 out of 19, of the social determinants of health that were measured, including disabilities, child care, mental health, transportation, legal, safety, income, children’s education, drugs/alcohol, money management, life skills and employment. CFS also saw improvements in another five social determinants: health care coverage/health, adult education, parenting skills, family/social relationships and housing/shelter.

Pump said the only two categories that worsened were food and community involvement. She said together nonprofits can address Hawaii’s stubborn food insecurities as well as examine the decline in community involvement, and push for continually better outcomes for those affected by poverty.

Tia L.R. Hartsock, director of the governor’s Office of Wellness and Resilience, told the Star-Advertiser after the event, “Our office has an incredible opportunity to partner across the state to address the root causes of trauma. We currently have a survey out measuring social determinants of health to inform how our office will systematically address building resilient communities.”

Hartsock added, “We are excited about the work that CFS is doing in the social determinants of health area and will only enhance our collective ability to impact and hopefully mitigate intergenerational poverty and historical trauma.”

Pump said CFS has purchased 200 TTS program licenses, and plans to expand TTS to Oahu and Hawaii island by year’s end. The nonprofit also is offering 60 complimentary certifications to other nonprofits so that they can use their own TTS framework to more quickly break Hawai‘i’s cycle of poverty. For more information, visit

Marcella Wilson, founder and CEO of Transition to Success LLC, who joined the event by Zoom, lauded CFS’ results in Hawai‘i. Wilson said she hopes Hawai‘i nonprofits will work collectively to spread TTS here and across the nation, where “a child is born into poverty every 44 seconds, all without consistent procedures, analytics and, unfortunately, all too often biases blaming those struggling rather than understanding the environmental root causes.”

“The science is irrefutable. Statistically speaking, if you are poor in America, you will be sicker and you will die younger,” Wilson said.

Pump said clients are planning for a better future through the largely self- determined TTS framework.

“TTS is a map of dreams,” she said. “Whatever motivates them is how they create it. Often, it’s a more visual representation of how to take the milestone steps in getting their dreams tackled.”

Angelina Mercado, executive director of the Hawai‘i State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said TTS’ dreams-based framework could align well with the domestic violence field, where “we want to have our services survivor lead, and what that means is not imparting the same power and control dynamics that their abusive partners have had.”

Mercado said not all domestic abuse survivors experience poverty, but it’s a large enough concern for some that it might be the reason that they stay in an abusive situation. She said those who leave abusive partners might grapple with rising household costs, lost income, unstable housing or homelessness, and access to affordable child care.

The TTS framework worked for domestic violence survivor Spirit Lahti, who said in a statement that she felt hopeless and lacked direction prior to participating in CFS’ program on Kaua‘i. But now, the recovering addict and mother said, she wants to go back to school and one day perhaps work for CFS.

“When I first started, I didn’t really have goals or dreams. I was just living day by day and trying to survive,” Lahti said.

“Being a part of CFS, I came to the realization that I really want to be a part of helping other people and advocating through the same things that I have been through. I feel like that is a big piece of my heart, and I really want to be a part of that.”
Source: The Garden Island

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