5 uncomfortable truths about living in Hawaii
1. Paradise is one of the most expensive places to live in the US.
If you want to live in Honolulu, the cosmopolitan hub of the islands, be prepared to pay as much for a home as you might in San Francisco or New York City. The limited amount of developable land and the desirability of the island lifestyle mean that the majority of homes are financially beyond the reach of people with an average income. Even Hawaii’s middle class families struggle to own their own homes.
The higher cost of living doesn’t stop there. Because Hawaii currently imports so much of its food, groceries cost about 50% more than the national average. And because it is the most oil-dependent state in the US, utilities are close to 70% more than what mainland residents are used to. Everything from driving a car to eating at a restaurant to buying milk at the store costs more in paradise.
2. Hawaii has a brain drain problem.
Tourists flock to Hawaii to experience the white sand beaches, aloha spirit, and laidback lifestyle. It can be hard for them to understand why anybody would ever want to leave. But for young people just getting out of school, lucrative and meaningful jobs are in short supply. Hawaii’s economy has, for many decades, been dependent on tourism, the military, and the government. For cutting-edge careers in science, technology, and business, young people acknowledge that they need to leave the state. Families who can afford to do so typically send their kids to colleges on the Mainland, with the hope that their children can have greater opportunities for advancement than they can back home in Hawaii.
The state government has recognized this brain drain problem, and is trying to diversify its economy to be more attractive to young people. “Startup Paradise” is one initiative, aimed at fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem in order to keep Hawaii’s brightest from fleeing.
3. The food economy is screwed up.
Visitors to Hawaii assume that because of the lush, tropical environment, everybody eats locally-grown food all of the time. And while you can find papaya, banana, and avocado trees everywhere, the reality of Hawaii’s food system is a far cry from the common perception. Today, 90% of the food eaten in the state is imported. Go into any Safeway, and you will find bananas and avocados, but for the most part, these are from Mexico or Central America. The fish and shrimp aren’t caught offshore, but rather, frozen and flown in from as far away as Thailand and the Philippines.
What Hawaii does grow — macadamia nuts, pineapples, and coffee — is mostly exported. Yes, Hawai’i Island is home to Parker Ranch, one of the biggest cattle ranches in the US. But once the cows are weaned from their mothers, they are shipped off to the Mainland in order to be raised on corn. And then they make their way back to Hawaii as — you guessed it — beef imported from the Mainland.
Locals are becoming increasingly aware of the need for food sovereignty. This has resulted in a resurgence of interest in locally-grown foods, and an expanding farm-to-table movement.
4. Some islands have limited access to healthcare.
Ask anyone where they would like to retire, and warm places by the beach top their lists. Despite the perception of Hawaii as an ideal place to spend one’s golden years, the fact is that access to healthcare can get spotty once you’re outside of Oahu, the main island for government, commerce, and tourism.
For example, residents on the Big Island suffer from limited access to primary, mental, and specialized care. I can personally attest to this. When I first moved to the island, I wanted to find a female primary care physician, but the only one taking patients was 90 minutes away by car. My 80-year-old neighbor has to fly to Honolulu regularly to receive specialized care.
While Hawaii is often ranked as one of the healthiest states in the nation, due to the high percentage of people who swim, surf, run, and bike all year round, the reality is more complicated. The state has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the nation, and the problem is especially acute among the native Hawaiian population. Hawaii also has one of the highest rates of crystal methamphetamine abuse in the country.
5. The struggle for Hawaiian sovereignty is alive and well.
Americans take for granted the fact that Hawaii is a state. We can fly there without a passport. We see familiar stores, such as Starbucks and Target. We can get on the internet. Our mobile phones work. Despite the exotic, tropical atmosphere, we immediately know we’re still in the good ol’ US of A.
But Hawaii’s statehood is, in fact, a contested area, and Hawaiian sovereignty movement groups have gained momentum in the last few decades. They argue that the United States illegally overthrew Hawaii’s sovereign queen in 1893, beginning a military occupation that culminated in the islands becoming the 50th US state in 1959. Although the sovereignty groups don’t agree on all points, they generally view the US as an occupier or colonizer of the islands. Many advocate for self-determination and self-governance, either for Hawaii as an independent nation or for people with native Hawaiian ancestry as a nation within a nation.
While it is unclear what the outcomes of this movement will be, it is important for all of us who visit Hawaii or call it our home to be respectful of the grievances of the Hawaiian people, and to recognize the violent history that made it possible for us to, for better or worse, enjoy our soy lattes on the beach.