Census Bureau turns Hawaii population gain into a loss

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The U.S. Census Bureau overestimated Hawaii’s 2020 population by 6.79%, or 98,812 people, according to an internal review released this month of the 2020 census.

This practically erases Hawaii’s supposed population growth over the past decade and highlights the state’s astronomical cost of living.

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According to data from the initial 2020 census, Hawaii’s population increased by 6.52% to 1,455,271 between 2010 and 2020. However, in its 2020 Post-Enumeration Survey Estimation Report, the U.S. Census Bureau determined that the population decreased by 0.26%. 

This decrease for the decade can be attributed to the decline in Hawaii’s population that began in 2016 and continued through 2020, amounting to a net loss of around 22,000 residents. That figure accounts for all births and deaths in the state, and people both leaving and moving to the islands.

Keli’i Akina, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii president and CEO, said the revised 2020 census figures confirm what the institute had suspected all along.

Keli’i Akina

“When the figures came out initially in January, we pretty much thought that there must be a mistake in the data,” he said. “In off-the-record conversations with well-informed census experts, we were assured that updates of the initial data would show a continuing exodus of residents from Hawaii, and that is exactly what happened.”

In six states — Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas — the Census Bureau undercounted the population. The nonprofit Data Center in New Orleans told NPR on Thursday that “a lot of the southern states were hit with disasters, hurricanes while door-to-door work was going on,” which led to many people failing to complete the census. 

According to the Washington, D.C.-based publication The Hill, the miscounts for Texas and Florida likely cost them additional seats in Congress. The census undercounted their populations by 1.92% and 3.48%, respectively.

Meanwhile, in eight states — Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Utah — the Census Bureau overestimated the populations. 

The revised census report does not discuss why the 2020 figures were inaccurate, but Eugene Tian, the state’s chief economist, said in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that one reason for the overcounting in Hawaii might be that out-of-state residents who own homes here were unable to return to their primary residences on the mainland because of the coronavirus lockdowns. Peter Fuleky, an economist at the University of Hawaii, said students in Hawaii for the 2020 spring break might also have been unable to return to their homes on the mainland for the same reason.

For Hawaii policymakers, these new statistics are a reminder that the state has incentivized its residents to leave and discouraged prospective residents from moving to Hawaii. You can read the stories of many who have left on the institute’s website here.

Akina said reasons for the exodus include Hawaii’s lack of affordable housing, high taxes, excessive regulations that have choked off business opportunities and the federal Jones Act, which limits shipping competition to the islands and adds to the cost of all goods.

From a tax standpoint, he added, fewer residents means fewer people to pay taxes — yet the Legislature keeps increasing taxes, spending and debt.

“If the Legislature and governor — and the counties — do not act quickly to expand individual liberty, economic freedom and accountable government, I am sure we will all see more of our families, friends and neighbors leaving the islands in the days ahead.” 

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