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Star-Advertiser Column: Low Minimum Wage Perpetuates Systematic Racism in Hawaii

The last few weeks have brought to the forefront how much damage systematic racism has on our Black community members’ lives. If Hawaii’s leaders want to fight against racism and its impacts, it’s absolutely necessary they join the rising global civil rights movement and implement anti-racist policies.

One policy clearly perpetuating systematic racism in Hawaii is the state’s oppressively low minimum wage.

Census data shows that the average full-time Black workers around the nation earns $10,000 less per year than their white counterparts. These racial earnings disparities hold in Hawaii as well, but Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and other Pacific Islanders also experience these large income gaps when compared to both white and Japanese residents.

After researching racial injustices across the nation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Ferguson Commission both recommended raising the minimum wage to help end our racial income disparities.

Democratic states across the nation have done just that. Eight are already on their way to a $15 per hour minimum wage. The national Democratic Party Platform includes a $15 minimum wage, with presidential candidate Joe Biden advocating for it as well.

Hawaii’s Democratic Legislature, led by House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi, however, have ignored these calls to help provide economic justice for Hawaii’s workers for years.

Hawaii’s low $10.10 per hour minimum wage is well short of the $17 per hour wage — roughly $36,000 per year — that a state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism report identifies is needed for full-time workers to afford their basic needs here.

Despite being short of the $17 that’s needed, House Bill 2541 raises the minimum wage to $13 by 2024 and has already been passed by the House. Senate President Kouchi can move this through the Senate and on to the governor’s desk.

While these legal starvation wages negatively impact people of all races, the impact is again felt disproportionately among Blacks, Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and other Pacific Islanders. More than 4 in 10 full-time workers in all of these groups earn less than the $36,000 living wage. Members of these communities are 1.5 times more likely to earn starvation wages than white workers, and 2 times more likely than Japanese workers.

Although these low wages don’t necessarily result in viral videos of painful, horrific deaths that spark massive global civil rights movements, their impacts are no less serious. Full-time workers earning starvation wages must live in substandard housing, skip meals and go without medicine. This results in significant health problems, issues with chronic stress, and shortened lifespans.

Harvard Economics Professor Raj Chetty has shown that low wages also persist generationally. Children of low-wage earners have decreased incomes through adulthood, maintaining the racial income inequality status quo for decades.

Attempts to escape this oppressive cycle lead many to flee for a better life elsewhere. More than half of all Native Hawaiians now live in other states.

This is not the “paradise” that people envision when they think of Hawaii.

Senate President Kouchi has the power to end starvation wages for all people and help bring racial economic justice to our state by raising the minimum wage. If he fails to even bring HB 2541 up for a vote, while the entire world joins together to fight systemic racism, the message to these oppressed communities will be loud and clear.


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