Hawaii’s Puna District: A Case Study in Cyclical Poverty


Hawai’i: American paradise. At least, that is the common conception. A remote archipelago in the Pacific, the State of Hawai’i, in many respects, represents the Platonic form of paradise; a land with pristine beaches, palm trees, and a never-ending supply of coconuts to satiate the thirst of travelers and locals alike. But in the district of Puna, on the southeast side of the Hawai’ian Big Island, an entirely different side of paradise can be found.

The district of Puna is the fastest growing area in the Hawaiian Islands both in population and in land mass (as it is the only area with active lava flows creating new land). Puna has the lowest cost of living on the islands, however, this cheaper real estate comes at a price. Puna has become a case study in cyclical poverty, and while most mainland Americans think that their tourism dollars are enough to keep the islands afloat, without intervention it may be destined to stay impoverished for some time to come.

The Cycle of Poverty:

I moved into Puna only recently, but I am no stranger to cyclical poverty. For much of my life, I lived in and around Buffalo, NY; a formerly flaking piece of America’s rust belt. Nearly dealt a death blow by the disappearance of the American steel industry and the Recession of 2008, I left for Buffalo for greener pastures in 2011 when things seemed particularly dire.

From 2010 to 2011, when unemployment and poverty rates in the Buffalo-Niagara region were near their twenty-year highs (Google), I, like so many others, was deeply affected by a frigid winter and the difficult job market there following the recession. Buffalo, an overeducated city with limited work available, was still churning out thousands and thousands of freshly educated youngsters, many vying for positions in the same field I was (media, journalism, and broadcasting). This led to a spike in underemployed youth, increased competition for work, and ultimately, an increase in public assistance and a reduction of tax revenue from both property and non-property based tax income. During that time, Buffalo’s property values were approximately 33% less than the state median, and by 2012 Buffalo had exhausted some 71% of its Constitutional Tax Limit; a limit imposed by the State Comptroller’s office to make sure the city isn’t spending more than is allocated in the state’s budget and to keep property taxes reasonable to prevent people from moving away. In short, Buffalo was broke and going broker.

I left for Atlanta, where I lived for five years fighting poverty yet again. Without a vehicle, I started temping while living with some family, and then moved on to a position cleaning airplanes overnight at one of the world’s busiest airports. To supplement my income, I put my degree and experience working in restaurants and writing online to work as a freelance blogger for a restaurant equipment dealer. I took the train to work overnights at the airport, and would blog during the day time. It was exhausting, but I was able to save up for my own apartment (without a roommate, even!).

Though I had no roommate, for those early days there was something else I did not have that I needed desperately: internet access. So I would wander around to coffee shops, pay a pittance for tea, and borrow some wi-fi while I blogged for my side job. Eventually, I was brought on full time at my side gig, and though I had enough finally to begin paying off my student debt, to do it I had to commute via public transportation. This was not an easy feat in Atlanta, and my commute was two hours each way and included two trains, a bus, and often a duo of two-mile walks (sometimes I would catch a ride after work back to the bus).

Despite the struggles I faced, something wonderful happened in Atlanta: I met the love of my life. I met my now fiancée in October of 2015, and soon after, she was offered an opportunity that would change both of our lives yet again: a position in the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa School Complex on the Island of Hawai’i. After much discussion, she accepted the position, and we decided to move into the District of Puna over the summer.

About Puna: Puna is, to put it bluntly, the most impoverished area of the most impoverished island in Hawai’i. As can be expected from an island that rests nearly 2,500 miles from the mainland United States, resources are hard to come by and the cost of living is direct proof. Though Puna is touted as one the most reasonably priced places to live in Hawai’i, anyone that visits this district will begin to understand why.

Mostly a tropical rainforest, Puna has more days of rain than sunshine. It is on the “wet side” of the Island’s mountains, with most areas receiving upwards of ~160 inches of rain each year. The Island’s east side has few beaches, and strong trade winds and unpredictable undercurrents often make swimming on this side of the island out of the question for the average individual. It does, however, offer a bevy of tropical fruits, local produce, and mysterious beauty on the days when the sun does shine.

The Big Island (aka Hawai’i County) overall had, as of 2013, an unemployment rate of 14.4%; the highest of all counties in Hawai’i. Puna’s unemployment rate rests at approximately 4% higher than the county average at nearly 18.5%; well above the national average of ~7.5% in 2013 (Google). (NOTE: the two linked documents provide much of the source material for this piece, so I will refrain from excessively linking them). This unemployment has lead to a dramatic increase in the number of homeless in Hawai’i County, with the number of homeless individuals nearly doubling every year. With statistics like this, it is not surprising that the Puna District receives over half of the state of Hawai’i’s public assistance money.

Lack of Infrastructure: Much of Puna features areas that operate with very limited infrastructure. Many homes and neighborhoods operate either off-grid in some capacity or altogether, and many roads are either unpaved or in disrepair. The house in which I reside, aside from an internet connection, operates completely off-grid. This house, like most on the Island, has a solar system installed, a rain catchment tank, and an electric pump for water (as well as a septic system). The oft-unstable volcanic bedrock and soil causes many problems for District-wide water services, and though solar power is a reasonably priced alternative to incredibly high electric rates (after initial investment costs), the tremendous number of rainy days proves to be a challenge for solar users, especially with water systems typically pulling a significant amount of electricity and refrigeration systems working harder to battle excess humidity. A gas generator is a necessity for nearly every solar home.

Many of these problems could be solved with city planning, strategy, and an investment into infrastructure. Unfortunately, with such a high unemployment rate and a disproportionate use of public aid funds, Puna is in a similar financial situation as Rust Belt cities like Buffalo were after the Recession in 2008. There is little to no money to repair the crumbling infrastructure, and a growing populous consuming more and more of the State’s resources.

The Tie Between Infrastructure, Education & Employment: When tax money for infrastructure begins to disappear, often tax dollars for schools and higher education do as well. The District of Puna is also seeing a crisis of education. A part of the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa Complex of Schools, the youth of Puna are now struggling because of the region’s financial struggles as well. Hawai’i has seen a statewide rise in the dropout rate, which is leading to problems since state and federal funding is tied to directly to student attendance. This is especially hurtful considering recent natural disasters that have caused numerous problems within the underfunded public school system. Some schools have only just reopened after recent issues with lava flows, and a barrage of hurricanes over the past few years (including 2014’s Hurricane Iselle) has left much to repair all over the county.

Aside from this, Puna has nearly three times the number of children with special needs and behavioral issues than the next closest district in Honolulu. A large contributor in the Complex’s dropout rate, but also a tremendous strain on the schools as well; creating undue strain on teachers, administrators, and professionals, and causing of an overwhelming spike in the number of vacancies within the Complex.

The problems with education continue into academia. While the Island’s two main higher learning centers, The University of Hawai’i at Hilo and Hawai’i Community College, lie in the adjacent district of South Hilo, they do not offer degree programs in many of the essential fields that communities need to survive (including a medical school and a law school). This means that most of the necessary specialized professionals on the Island must be formally educated elsewhere before taking a position on the Island.

With unemployment and poverty deeply affecting most of the eastern side of the Island, and the lack of specialized education, it almost goes without saying that most job openings are for specialized positions, particularly in healthcare and mental health professions. Aside from the obvious effects on the population of the Island, which we will get into later, a larger looming problem comes with trying to fill these positions.

Specialized positions require individuals that are further along their career path, and often times, individuals that are further along in their career have spouses that work and families. Moving to Hawai’i, and Puna particularly, can cause much financial distress given the cost of living and lack of employment. Professionals with spouses often need to complete readjust joint finances, and is not uncommon that family units that once had two incomes become single-income households.

My anecdotal experience is a testament to this. In Atlanta, my fiancée and I were both working professionals, and we lived on our joint incomes. After making the leap to Puna, I have been unable to find gainful employment, and we are currently a single-income household. This struggle we are personally facing is no doubt reflected in the number of open positions and the island’s high rate of population turnaround. Ergo, it seems logical that for most people that do stay after relocating are most likely single, younger professionals with less experience. 

Effect on the Populous: The large number of specialized professions, and the large number of inexperienced professionals working ultimately takes its toll on the populous. In Puna, citizens are incredibly underserved when it comes to educational services, health and wellness services, and especially mental health services.

With the exception of the island of Oahu, the entire state is medically underserved, and Puna and neighboring district Kau both have a shortage of general practitioners; a necessary field for a rapidly growing area. Because of this, the state on the whole, and particularly Puna, face a wealth of health crises, including illnesses such as heart disease & stroke, TB, and even Hep-A.

Additionally, the district lacks adequate facilities for female health services and emergency treatment, which leads to higher rates of maternal / infant health issues and a stark number of preventable deaths due to a lack of urgent care and specialty services. Transportation is a critical factor for patients in need of urgent care, and the nature of the Puna district’s infrastructure and lack of specialized education once again plays a role in this. These statistics increase further when you zoom in on demographics, with native Hawai’ians paying a far greater toll.

With a lack of such basic facilities, as is the case with most impoverished areas, preventable medicine and health seemingly take a back seat to dealing with emergency care. Given this, Puna has incredibly high obesity rates, leading to much of the area is currently being affected by a diabetes epidemic, and screenings for things breast or other forms of cancer are falling to the way side. This is also directly tied to additional problems within the education system, many of which stem from ethnic / cultural disparities, as many of the district’s uneducated are unable to discern or communicate their own health issues.

Ultimately, all of these issues take their toll on the mental health of the area as well. With a lack of mental health services available not only for the public, but also in the school system, Puna has a mental health crisis unlike any else in the country. Substance abuse is rampant, the suicide rate is high and on the rise, and mental health is the most common cause for preventable hospitalization in the entire state.  Unfortunately, often times state budget cuts directly affect mental health and preventable care, which is proving to have had a lasting effect on the impoverished in Hawai’i, especially here in Puna.

The Cycle Continues: With things as they currently lie, change does not seem on the horizon for the District of Puna anytime soon. State income doesn’t seem to be growing exponentially, and though the area is seeing a boom in population, it is also seeing a boom in applicants for state aid.

For Buffalo, an end to the cycle of poverty that had struck the city was an influx of state and private capital known as the “Buffalo Billion”. It has taken billions of dollars in state and private money to reinvigorate the city’s economy, as well a change in hands of Buffalo’s sports teams to fracking billionaire Terry Pegula, but it has worked. Much of the city’s downtown area has been reinvigorated, and both people and work have begun to return for the facelift Buffalo so sorely needed.

Much like The Marshall Plan that saved Europe from economic ruin after World War II, the Buffalo Billion was New York State recognizing that it had to “spend money to make money”. The reinvestment in Buffalo allowed New York State to begin to fix its own fiscal issues because Western New York was no longer the drain on funds it had been. FDR realized after World War II that it was in our best interest to help re-establish our best trading partners, and it is that kind of thinking that needs to be applied to Puna.

An influx of state and federal dollars, as well as a commitment from private companies to invest in jobs is the only way to fix communities like Puna before they fall into disrepair. And though it may seem to those far away like a waste of money, an area with a population boom such as Puna could eventually repay that money in spades if the right steps are taken. But given the direction our country has been moving in as of late, there is little sign that may happen any time soon.

Sean McGill @seanmcthrill