TAXWatch: Ninety-One Hours in a Work Week?!

Recently, the website howmuch.net, a financial literacy website with interesting visualizations about various financial topics, came out with a comparison called, “This is How Long You Need to Work to Live Comfortably in Every State.”

Those folks tried to calculate, for each state, the annual wage required to live comfortably, by earner, and the number of hours per week that an earner would need to work to earn it.  “Hawaii is the single most difficult state for workers to get ahead,” they said, “requiring $96.1K to enjoy a comfortable life and 91-hour workweeks to get there.”

Huh?!  A 91-hour workweek doesn’t sound like a comfortable life at all!

The second-highest jurisdiction where it costs the most to enjoy a comfortable living is Washington, DC, where it costs $78,310 and would require a 44-hour workweek to earn it.  The number of hours in DC is much lower because people there, on average, make lots more per hour.

The next five places went to California, Oregon, New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland, with costs in the $60K range and workweeks between 51 and 63 hours.

Which means that we are way out of line compared to other states. 

How did howmuch.net come to that conclusion?  They said that they figured out the median wage for workers in 2018 in each state from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and then used numbers from the BLS to calculate average annual consumer expenditures.  They added 20% to each state’s average to represent comfortable living. Then, they divided that figure by the number of earners in an average household and obtained the annual expenditure per earner. That amount was adjusted to each state’s cost of living using data from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC, which is part of Missouri’s state government and seems to be their counterpart of Hawaii DBEDT’s Research and Economic Analysis Division or READ).  The result was divided by the median wage, giving the number of hours needed to make that wage.

According to MERIC, Hawaii’s cost of living was 201.3 percent of, or double, the national average, with the primary problem being housing costs that punched in at a staggering 347.1 percent of the national average.  Our grocery costs were at 160.8, utilities at 185.2, transportation at 135.7, and health care at 120.3 percent of the national average respectively, earning us 52nd place, namely dead last, out of 50 states plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico.  The next most expensive cost-of-living jurisdictions were DC with 164, California with 140, Oregon with 137, and New York with 135 percent of the national average.

Although we might be able to quibble with some of the pieces of the methodology, like why they chose a 20% bump to represent a “comfortable life,” the underlying message of the study echoes what we have seen several times before regarding Hawaii’s cost of living in general and housing cost in particular.  You may also have noticed that our residents have been heading for the exits over the last few years (at least). If this keeps up, who is going to be left to pay for government?

Lawmakers take note!  If you are seriously interested in making our State a better place to live and work, please make it a priority to do something to calm our raging cost of living, especially the cost of housing.  Who can possibly work 91 hours a week to have a comfortable life? Or 76 hours a week (taking away the 20% bump) to have an average, uncomfortable life?  

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Tom Yamachika is the President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a private, nonprofit educational organization dedicated to informing the taxpaying public about the finances of our state and local governments in Hawaii. Tom is also a tax attorney in solo practice and has been since early 2013. Prior to 2013, he was with the accounting firm Accuity LLP, which was formed in 2006 from the Honolulu office of Coopers & Lybrand (which later became PricewaterhouseCoopers). Before that, he served as an Administrative Rules Specialist in the State of Hawaii Department of Taxation from 1994 to 1996, where he drafted rules, interpretive releases, and legislation on several different state taxes. Prior to that, he practiced litigation and tax law with Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright in Honolulu.