It pays not to work: Hawaii residents receive highest welfare benefits in US

Photo: Emily Metcalf
Photo: Emily Metcalf

HONOLULU — In Hawaii, it pays not to work.

A new report by Cato Institute, which examines the state-by-state value of welfare for a mother of two, said benefits in Hawaii average $49,175 — tops in the nation.

Michael Tanner, co-author of the Cato study, said that since welfare isn’t taxed, a person would have to earn $60,590 in Hawaii to take home the same $49,175 a person on welfare would.

“To be clear: There is no evidence that people on welfare are lazy. Indeed, surveys of them consistently show their desire for a job. But they’re also not stupid. If you pay them more not to work than they can earn by working, many will choose not to work,” Tanner said in a summary of his report.

Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom, a member of the Senate Human Services and Ways and Means committees, said the study’s results are “not surprising” to those who have followed the geometric increases in total welfare benefits and expenditures.

“I said in a public hearing several years ago that within a few years, our human services welfare costs would surpass public education in Hawaii. This came to pass late in 2012,” Slom said. “It is a shame that Hawaii has such huge governmental costs and tax burden, which in turn creates more of a welfare class and the growing inability of a middle class to sustain themselves, let alone to privately assist the less fortunate. We have been promised hope and change in this state. There is no change, only hope.”

Suzie Chun Oakland, the chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, was traveling and could not be reached for comment. The vice chair of the committee, Josh Green, did not return an email inquiry about the study.

State Department of Human Services‘s director Pat McManaman refused comment on the Cato study, saying she hasn’t had time to review it. But the department did provide statistics on Hawaii’s welfare recipients including that supplemental nutrition benefits (SNAP) were provided to 176,676 people in FY 2012; General Assistance was distributed to 5537 individual per month in 2012, the Homeless Programs Office and its contracted agencies provided assistance to more than 14,380 individuals in 2012, the BESSD Child Care Connection Program assisted 20,234 families and MQD oversaw health care benefits for more than 287,000 eligible residents in FY 2012.

Kalbert Young, director of the state Department of Budget and Finance, said that over the next two fiscal years Hawaii is appropriating $2.75 billion and $2.83 billion —or about 20 percent of the state general fund budget — for operating expenses of “social services,” which includes funding for child protective services, community youth programs, adult community care services, general assistance payments, public housing, health care payments such as Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Slightly more than half of those funds come from Washington, D.C.

Tanner said there are 126 separate welfare programs funded by the federal government, 72 of which provide either cash or in-kind benefits to individuals. That’s on top of state and local program to help those with lower incomes.

“Of course, no individual or family gets benefits from all 72 programs, but many do get aid from a number of them at any point in time,” Tanner said.While it may make sense for people to accept welfare in the short term, Tanner said it may actually hurt them over the long term.

“One of the most important steps toward avoiding or getting out of poverty is a job. Only 2.6 percent of full-time workers are poor, versus 23.9 percent of adults who don’t work. And, while many anti-poverty activists decry low-wage jobs, even starting at a minimum-wage job can be a springboard out of poverty. Thus, by providing such generous welfare payments, we may actually not be helping recipients,” Tanner said.

Tanner suggests governments can do more.

“If Congress and state legislatures are serious about reducing welfare dependence and rewarding work, they should consider strengthening work requirements in welfare programs, removing exemptions and narrowing the definition of work,” Tanner said.





  1. "There is no evidence that people on welfare are lazy."

    True for Michael Tanner writing from the Cato Institute over on the mainland.

    Not true if he came over here and actually surveyed welfare recipients.

    And, in assessing laziness, Tanner should bear in mind the standard espoused by Adam Kucher (sp?) in his Teen Choice (name?) award acceptance speech last week: Opportunity looks like work.

    Kucher said, and the teens in the audience cheered, that he never quit a job unless he had another job lined up already.

    In the same way, except for our people who truly get overtaken by hard luck, too many of our welfare recipients are on the dole because of self inflicted deprivation or outright avoidance of opportunity.

    That is laziness, morally and in fact.

  2. From the CATO report cited: "Most reports on welfare focus on only a
    single program, the cash-benefit program Temporary
    Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
    But this focus leaves a misimpression that welfare
    benefits are quite low, providing a bare subsistence
    level of income. In reality, the federal
    government currently funds 126 separate programs
    targeted toward low-income people, 72
    of which provide either cash or in-kind benefits
    to individuals. (The remainder fund communitywide
    programs for low-income neighborhoods,
    but do not provide benefits directly to
    individual recipients.) State, county, and municipal
    governments operate additional welfare
    programs. Of course, no individual or family receives
    benefits from all 72 programs, but many
    recipients do receive aid from a number of the
    programs at any given time. The total value
    of welfare received, therefore, is likely to be far
    higher than simply the level of TANF benefits."
    ….ummm…so you're including money spent on ALL people in a community as part of your "welfare" calculation?
    …and of your "126 programs" do they include veterans benefits? Job training? …and job for vets?
    …and how many of your "programs" are ALSO available for low income full time workers?
    lol….sounds like you've been quoting that woman again…what is her name…..oh yeah "Miss Information"

  3. I live in Hawaii 57% of the people here have the EBT card. I see them everyday at the supermarket. They buy food with the card and alcohol and drugs with cash. When I went to do my taxes the woman a retired teacher from the state working for H.R. Block asked me why I didn't get the EBT card like everyone else, she had it and said "You are ENTITLED TO IT."

    I had blood shooting from my eyes I was so angry.

    • The first place is the"Unfair welfare: Investigation reveals overpayments and biggest thieves" by KHON2…excerpt;
      “Especially in Chinatown you’re looking at 35-40% of what we sell,” said Paul Min, owner of You Market #2. So we took a look, and look how much we found in welfare overpayments: $48.4 million……
      “It is significant,” McManaman said, “and I don’t think there’s any disagreement the state of Hawaii, the Department of Human Services, needs to do better.”
      More @
      And read the comments…esp.; a lady in Safeway (Hawaii Kai), she was huge, and I remember her for what she purchased on her EBT card.
      4 large packs of T-Bones, 6 steaks per pack
      8 bags of french fries
      18, yes 18 2-liter bottles of root beer

      • Checked out khon2's link, pretty funny comments.
        Then was shocked to read kids of Chinatown are the criminals there, seems they have a "tutored criminal program"
        "…With ages from eight to about 18, 19, 20. And they come in a pack, which is a frightening part because when you’re a single operator, when there’s a pack of kids — half of them standing outside your store, half of them sitting inside — and then they don’t move,” said Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, President of the Chinatown Business and Community Association…."
        A community business development meeting with Mayor Kirk? Gov. Neal should be contacted to?

  4. I am a nurse here in Hawaii. Most of our patients are on Welfare, Federal benefits. They have many children, stay I married, and stay in the Federal system. Why work?!

  5. If they implemented drug testing for these recipients, they would clear out and plug these drains on our tax dollars, clearing the way for the ones who really need it. Did I mention really need it?
    There's too much lazy asses out there taking advantage of this and laughing all the way to the bank. Questions need to be asked. How long do you plan on receiving these benifits and when do you plan on getting a job and relinquish these benifits and become productive members of society? Then hold them to their word!
    Ask for a list of jobs they applied for durring their time enjoying the ride on the taxpayers dime. Unemployment benefits require this. It lasts for o ly three to six months then its cut off. They even call when something looks wrong on the places you applied to. Why not welfare face the same scrutiny?

    • As long as all elected officials are tested first. Then the staffs.Then we can test all others who depend on our tax dollars to survive.

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