By NANCY COOK LAUER
More than twice as many Hawaii County households were on welfare last year as were in 2010, and a full 17.4 percent received food stamps, according to data released late Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The data, part of a nationwide release from the 2011 American Community Survey, pegged Hawaii County’s median household income at $46,479, compared to $66,146 in the City and County of Honolulu, $60,147 in Maui County and $60,751 in Kauai County.
The U.S. median household income for 2011 was $50,502, with state medians ranging from a low of $36,919 in Mississippi to a high of $70,004 in Maryland.
Hawaii County also had the lowest per capita income, at $22,079, compared to $28,432 in Honolulu City and County, $28,281 in Maui County and $24,365 in Kauai County.
The welfare figure was especially troubling to former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, who is challenging Mayor Billy Kenoi for the county’s top job. The survey showed that 8.1 percent of Hawaii County’s 64,605 households received cash assistance from the government in 2011, compared to 3.8 percent of 62,584 households in 2010. The households received an average of $4,278 in cash payments, such as temporary assistance to needy families (TANF), general assistance and emergency assistance from the government.
“I firmly believe that people want to get off welfare if they could,” Kim said.
Kenoi acknowledged the county has been through a rough economic patch on his watch, but he pointed to a brightening economic picture that should start turning things around soon.
The tourism industry in particular has picked up, Kenoi said, with 8 percent more visitors this year than this time last year, spending 16 percent more. Visitors have spent more than $1 billion in the county already this year, he said.
Two other economic pillars, construction and agriculture, are also coming around, Kenoi said. More people are currently employed in agriculture than any time since the last sugar plantation folded in 1994, he said.
“There’s a cautious optimism,” Kenoi said. “It’s certainly been a challenging economic environment, but we’re starting to see the results of everybody working together.”
Kim advocates a holistic approach to tackling the county’s grim economic figures. He said public awareness is the first step, and he cites ending county employee furloughs, tax relief for low-income homeowners and returning to a free bus system as three ways to help people get back on their feet.
“It’s not just you have to create jobs,” Kim said, adding that trying to stimulate the economy by building resorts for millionaires often has a boomerang effect, raising property values and taxes while continuing to slot workers into low-paying service jobs.
Low-paying or not, a full 41.6 percent of all residents 16 and over had no job at all in 2011, according to the census. That’s up from 38 percent in 2010.
The American Community Survey is an estimate based on a representative sampling of the population between the decennial censuses. It provides a wide range of important statistics about the nation’s people, housing and economy for all communities in the country, the U.S. Census Bureau said in a news release.
The results are used by everyone from retailers, home builders and police departments, to town and city planners. The survey is the only source of local estimates for most of the 40 topics it covers, such as educational attainment, occupation, language spoken at home, nativity, ancestry and selected monthly homeowner costs down to the smallest communities.
“The American Community Survey provides reliable, local statistics about our nation’s people, housing and economy that are indispensable to anyone who has to make decisions about the future,” Census Bureau Acting Director Thomas Mesenbourg said in a statement. “Businesses rely on it to plan and expand into new products or communities. Towns and cities use it to locate schools and firehouses.”
The data showed a significant drop in the $100,000 to $149,999 income range and a significant rise in the $25,000 to $34,999 range for Hawaii County households. Households in the higher income range dropped from 10.8 percent of households in 2010 to 7.4 percent in 2011. Households in the lower income range increased from 7.9 percent in 2010 to 13.4 percent in 2011. None of the other income range changes were statistically significant at the 90 percent margin of error used in the Census Bureau analysis.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at email@example.com.