Hawaii advocates for ALICE communities


Nicole Pasia


Hawaii community leaders are rallying together to address the needs of the state’s economically vulnerable communities. This population, described as asset-limited, income constrained, and employed (ALICE), struggles with affording housing, access to health care, and healthy food options — issues that were exacerbated during the pandemic. 


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Representatives from Aloha United Way (AUW), the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center, Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and more hosted a discussion Thursday focused on supporting Hawaii’s ALICE community. 

Lisa Kimura, AUW vice president of Community Impact, kicked off the panel with an overview of how COVID-19 exacerbated the difficulties these communities were already facing before the pandemic. According to Kimura, 42% of families qualified as ALICE prior to the pandemic. This means they struggle to afford adequate housing and access to healthy food. After the pandemic, that figure rose to 59%, and 7% of the population was unable to recover from becoming ALICE.

Kimura estimated that a family of four would need over $90,000 in income to “afford the necessities” of living in Hawaii, but many wages cannot sustain the high— and rising— cost of living. According to Kimura, the pandemic deepened structural inequalities. 

“Low-income, rural communities and communities of Native Hawaiian ancestry and color are more likely to lack access to health care and nutritious food. Those experiencing structural inequalities that lead to poor health, such as Native Hawaiians, COFA citizens and immigrants, are also more likely to be disproportionately burdened by COVID-19 disease.” 

To bring awareness to solutions supporting ALICE communities, several nonprofit organizations discussed the work they have done during the pandemic including job training, improving budget capabilities, and wraparound services. 


Image: Aloha United Way


Kuhio Lewis, president and CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, detailed a training program that helped ALICE communities gain the skills to secure high-paying trade jobs, such as firefighting. Since the training started in Fall 2019, 90 trainees successfully found employment in the firefighter workforce. He said the key to supporting ALICE communities amid the pandemic is being flexible:

“When the pandemic came around, we pivoted our organization. We didn’t know what tomorrow would look like, so we shifted to going after services and programs to help people with recovery…we had to learn how to be more responsive because people were more exacerbated than previously.” 

Other advocates focused on programs that help ALICE communities secure stable housing. The Hawaii HomeOwnership Center (HHOC) offers homebuyer education classes, mortgage financing, and post-purchase services to help individuals develop financial and budgeting skills. In 2020, HHOC implemented a foreclosure prevention and rental counseling program in response to the pandemic. 


Image: Aloha United Way


HHOC found that 92% of participants in its Financial Capabilities Program would continue to save money following the program. Dale Tomei, education coordinator at HHOC, said: 

“Even during these challenging times, again, homeownership still can be attainable for ALICE families. We are looking to partner more with non-profits and collaborate entities to provide outreach opportunities and funding support as well as to improve efficiencies for the next financial capabilities pilot.”

Aside from developing programs to aid ALICE communities, advocates said raising awareness of who qualifies as ALICE is just as important. Reina Miyamoto, HHOC executive director, said: 

“As we speak more about ALICE, and that acronym is more widely understood, it’s also an opportunity to educate folks. I think for a lot of employers, their employees are often in the ALICE category. Our neighbors, a good number of all of our personal circles are ALICE. Educating what that means in terms of who ALICE is, I think generates some interest in the work that we’re doing.”    

The panel was the second of three discussions focused on supporting ALICE communities, available to view here. The first panel discussed the impacts of Hawaii’s high cost of living on its communities. The last panel, centered on legislative initiatives for ALICE communities, will take place August 26. Interested participants can register here.