Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
If you want to see küpuna poverty up close, go to a Hawaii Foodbank distribution center. Most of the people in line are elderly men and women.
It will break your heart.
But it should come as no surprise.
Last year’s Aloha United Way ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Report found that nearly two in five küpuna families live in poverty. Another University of Massachusetts study estimates that more than half of Hawai‘i’s küpuna who live alone cannot pay for basic necessities, and 7.6 percent of older couples live below the federal poverty line, the highest percentage in the nation.
It seems that there are two kinds of küpuna households in Hawai‘i: those with pensions or who have saved enough to be comfortable, and those who have no pension or savings and are dependent on Social Security.
The income gap is likely to get worse and may not get better. Too many people nearing retirement age are in danger of retiring broke or never being able to retire. About half of working households in the U.S. have no retirement savings, and the median savings of those close to retirement is just $14,500.
One solution may be to give more workers access to savings programs at work. People are 15 times more likely to save if the money can be taken out of their paycheck before they have a chance to spend it.
In Hawai‘i, however, about half of all private businesses, mostly small business, do not or are unable to offer their workers a 401(k) or other workplace savings program. For these businesses, it’s just too complicated, expensive and time-consuming to hire financial planners and lawyers, do the research and fill out the paperwork to create a workplace savings program.
As a result, states have stepped in and created automatic IRA savings programs that businesses can offer to workers at no cost to the business.
In Oregon, the first state to adopt an automatic IRA program, 7,900 businesses and 66,000 workers signed up with OregonSaves and have saved more than $42 million in less than three years. Many of the participants are first-time savers. The average income of the workers is $29,000 and the average amount saved is about $128 a month. Seventy percent of workers offered a chance to save open an account. Ten other states have set up, or are in the process of setting up, similar programs.
Can a Hawai‘i Saves program help the 216,000 workers in our state who do not have payroll deduction? Senate Bill 2490 aims to find out. It would set up a task force to study whether the program can work here.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously and has moved to the House of Representatives, where a similar bill died earlier this session. You can learn more and send a message to your state representative online at action.aarp.org/HawaiiSaves.
If we want to do something now to help küpuna who are going hungry, give to the Hawaii FoodBank. But if we want to reduce the number of küpuna who will go hungry in the future, we need to honestly examine ways to help workers save their own money for a better tomorrow.
Craig Gima is communications director at AARP Hawai‘i. He is an award-winning multimedia communicator with more than 30 years of experience in telling stories online, in print and on television. A Honolulu native, Gima spent nearly 19 years at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a variety of roles before joining AARP in 2016.