By Lowell L. Kalapa
A recent visit to the east side of the Big Island revealed a subtle path that has taken Hawaii down a road of dependence on institutions rather than one of personal self-sufficiency.
What does this have to do with government in Hawaii? Well, when one stops to think about the type of government we have here in Hawaii, it becomes very clear why the cost of operating state and local government in Hawaii is so darn costly. How costly? For a state that ranks amongst the states with the smallest populations, Hawaii has the 4th highest per capita tax burden out of the 50 states.
Some might argue that Hawaii has such a high cost of government because it does not enjoy the economies of scale, that is where there is a large population over which to amortize the cost of government. On the other hand, a look back in history in Hawaii gives us pause to reflect on how the history shaped how we think of government.
One of the stories told on our visit to east Hawaii was about a young mother who drove 40 miles to Hilo because her child had a fever and the only response she knew was that she had to have a doctor see her child. This young mother had grown up on the plantation and when she was young whenever anyone in the family got sick, they went to see the plantation dispensary. So in her mind, the right thing to do was to go see a doctor.
Upon seeing the ill child, the doctor asked the young mother if she could recall what her mother or grandmother did when she had a fever when she was young. As the young mother admitted, her grandmother used cold wet towels to help alleviate the fever. But because the only response to an illness that she could remember was to go to the plantation infirmary, the young mother sought out the doctor.
To a large degree this is how our outlook has been shaped when it comes to government. Instead of the plantation infirmary or the plantation store, government has now become the universal provider of services. Government has replaced the plantation as “big brother” who will “watch out and take care” of the community. This approach has led to the plethora of laws and programs which protect the consumer or provide for handouts to individuals.
The traditional approach to welfare subscribes to this philosophy, that “big brother,” in this case government, has to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. It is this approach that has contributed to generation after generation of welfare recipients because like the plantation employees, they know of no other existence.
Fortunately, contemporary thinking has taken a radically different approach. Instead of providing for and doing for individuals, the current thinking is one of support while helping individuals to do for themselves. Instead of merely handing out a welfare check to those down on their luck, the contemporary approach to welfare seeks to empower individuals so that those who are temporarily down on their luck can gain the skills and the tools they need so that they can provide for themselves.
Even the professionals agree that just providing a welfare check or a handout is demeaning. Waiting around for that check does not contribute to self-esteem and self-worth. Knowing that one can provide for him or herself or one’s family contributes to self-esteem.
As the economy contracts from all the recent events, many families will find themselves in difficult times with either no jobs or with very curtailed hours. There will be growing needs for assistance be it for food or shelter, but let’s hope that the support systems provide opportunities for individuals and families to earn that assistance.
If the choice for government is to merely hand out welfare checks or to set up work programs where workers can contribute to the public good, let’s hope government officials will recognize the need to earn that assistance. In the days and weeks ahead, hard choice will have to be made, some of them will require that public officials think outside the traditional box.
Providing support to families in need has to be part of that thinking outside the box. Work programs much like those of the Roosevelt era may not be a bad idea to revisit. At least those programs put people to work and in the end, the product benefitted all of the community, but more importantly it provided renewed self-esteem and pride.