Is the Hawaii Government Really Helping Hawaiians?

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In a state deeply embroiled in a debate over the Akaka Bill, it is no wonder that a large percentage of the public favors some (so far undefined) form of “recognition” of Native Hawaiians.
Putting aside the historical inaccuracies, the troubling economic concerns, and the profound cultural issues that surround Akaka, it is clear that many of us in the Islands respect Native Hawaiian culture and believe that for a lot of Native Hawaiians, things can be tough, socio-economically speaking. After all, the poverty rate among Native Hawaiians is higher than average, as is the percentage of Native Hawaiians without health insurance.


Native Hawaiians are below the national average in attainment of bachelor’s and graduate degrees. Not to mention that measures of health and general well-being of Native Hawaiians shows a greater risk of death from cancer, heart disease, diabetes . . . and just about everything else save, “drowning in champagne on your own yacht.”

But beware the persuasive writer (or politician) bearing statistics, as they tell only part of the story.

According to the U.S. Census, in 2002 there were 28,948 businesses in the US owned by Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (2415 of which were in Honolulu), generating $4.3 billion in annual receipts. What’s more, despite the impression you might take from those with a political axe to grind, there is help out there for Native Hawaiians. You would be surprised at how much.

The 4 Hawaiians Only research project from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has been cataloguing grants intended to help Native Hawaiians. (That is, those grants where the primary purpose is to aid the Native Hawaiian population, as opposed to those that might unintentionally and disproportionately benefit Native Hawaiians.

These are grants made specifically with an eye to helping Native Hawaiian families, preserving Native Hawaiian culture, promoting Native Hawaiian businesses, etc.) Looking only at grants made since fiscal year 2007, we’ve found more than 680 federal, state, and OHA grants totaling more than $200 million in funding to improve the lives of Native Hawaiians. And we’re still adding more grants from 2009 and 2010.

So the obvious question becomes not, “How can we help Native Hawaiians?”, but “Are we actually doing a good job at helping them?” This is not an easy one to answer, and is part of the reason the 4 Hawaiians Only project exists. Some of the grants seem like important, even necessary awards—like providing health access for Hawaiians living in a remote and inaccessible part of Maui.

Others make you wonder whether someone’s cousin might have a bit too large an influence in the grants department. (Like well-funded efforts to make canoes and grow organic vegetables.) More than once we’ve pondered whether the creation of a near-industry to provide government aid takes advantage of Hawaiians and wrongly portrays them as helpless victims.

And therein lies the ultimate point of our effort. As we continue to learn more about these grants and programs, we hope to provide the public with more information about where there money is going, so that they can determine which programs are worthy and which are not.

We hope that others will let us know about their own experiences and knowledge of these programs, for good or bad, so that we can spread the word about them and improve transparency in what has traditionally been a very obscure area.

Yes, the taxpayers deserve to know, but the Native Hawaiians deserve even more to be able to see and judge what is being done in their name.

You can visit the 4 Hawaiians Only website at Please also visit our blog and join us on Facebook. Or, email us with questions, comments, or information at

Malia Blom Hill is an attorney who wrote this for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii