Do Local Youth Have a Place in Hawai'i's Future?

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The following editorial was originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday, January 3, 2021 as part of the "Raise Your Hand" column in the Insights section.


The pandemic has further emphasized what many Hawaiʻi residents already know: living here is unsustainable. As much as I and other local youth envision carving out places for ourselves in Hawaiʻi’s future, it’s likely that we will join the ongoing exodus of local people from Hawaiʻi unless the possibility of having a home and career in the islands becomes more realistic.

For the past three years, Hawaiʻi has experienced simultaneous population and economic loss due to a dangerous cycle of residents leaving the state for better economic opportunities. According to the University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization (UHERO), in 2018, 67,000 Hawaiʻi residents migrated elsewhere while more than 54,000 mainlanders moved here. Given that Hawaiʻi’s minimum wage is $10.10—seven dollars short of a living wage—and the affordable housing shortage, it is no surprise that local residents are seeking better opportunities on the mainland.

Tourists and wealthy mainlanders do not hesitate to claim their place in Hawaiʻi—their very presence discourages diversifying the economy and building affordable housing. They have the privilege of viewing Hawaiʻi as a paradise or a safe haven from the virus, but locals have vastly different lived experiences. Even before the pandemic, my family was painfully aware that if my father, who is over 70 years old and COVID-vulnerable, passed away, we would no longer be able to afford to pay our mortgage. Across the state, many people must consider similar predicaments. It is common for locals to work two jobs to afford rent since Hawaiʻi’s tourism-based economy is full of low-paying, entry-level positions. Although there have been efforts to market Hawaiʻi as a remote workplace to attract people to the islands, the majority of the jobs open to Hawaiʻi youth will still remain in or adjacent to the tourism industry. Furthermore, these employees from out-of-state are purchasing luxury housing, which has the potential to drive housing prices up.

In addition to economic forces, another contributing factor to the exodus of local people is the college application process. High school students are constantly urged to “get off the rock” and attend a mainland college. I initially planned to attend college in Texas for that reason, but due to the pandemic and financial concerns, I chose to stay on Oʻahu. In retrospect, I am thankful that I reconsidered attending college elsewhere because I have developed a genuine interest in learning about Hawaiʻi’s history and culture. As a person of Asian and Native Hawaiian heritage, learning about the role Asian settler colonialism has played in disenfranchising Native Hawaiians, and that the waitlist for Hawaiian Homestead Lands is 28,000 people long, has led me to question my role in Hawaiʻi’s future.

Local people carry the burden of knowing that Hawaiʻi is not paradise, but it has left us the most equipped to address Hawaiʻi’s problems. Born out of a love for our home, we are empowered to take action in Hawaiʻi’s communities. Money doesn’t change whether it comes from a local family of four or a tourist, but unless we invest in creating a place in Hawaiʻi’s future for our youth, we will lose our foundation to enact meaningful change in our communities.

Having grown up here, local youth offer an insider perspective that must be uplifted to create solutions that are inclusive of the community. Local youth need stability and security, an assurance that they can find lifelong fulfillment in Hawaiʻi. This vision will look different for each young person, but one thing is certain: the future of Hawaiʻi looks bleak without our youth.

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