Editorial | Island Voices

By Ai-jen Poo
Originally published by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, April 5, 2017. Read it there.

On Jan. 20, I was overcome by fear of what the future would hold. But on Jan. 21, at the national Women’s March on Washington, I was overcome by hope. As I joined the millions who filled the streets across America, I began to believe that not only would we overcome, but we could become stronger as a nation. But one thing was clear to me: Getting millions to march was not enough. We need courageous leadership at every turn. That leadership is evident in the Aloha State.

I have the great honor of serving as this semester’s Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals. It has allowed me to teach classes in American studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa and engage with its inspiring, diverse students.

Many in Hawaii are proud that it was the first state to challenge the revised refugee and Muslim ban. Japanese internment during World War II is very much alive in the memories of the people in Hawaii. Immigration to serve the labor needs of the plantations also shaped the culture profoundly. Native Hawaiians welcomed people from every corner of the world, often with painful results. And yet, the spirit of aloha reigns. As a place that understands only too well the pain and trauma of racial exclusion and exploitation, and as a place that truly embraces diversity as a strength, it wasn’t entirely surprising that Attorney General Douglas Chin was quick to challenge the ban.

Every state should emulate Hawaii, not only in its opposition to exclusion and division, but also in envisioning the future.

In advocating for caregivers and our elders, I’m usually met with tremendous resistance. Even though the data tells us that we are an aging nation with ever-increasing caregiving needs, it is difficult to get traction with lawmakers. Not in Hawaii. In Hawaii, families prioritize caring for kupuna. There is broad agreement that caring is an important part of family life, and should be supported by public policy.

In fact, Hawaii is on the verge of passing legislation that could offer a model for other states. The Kupuna Caregivers Assistance Program would provide a benefit of up to $70 per day to help family caregivers stay in the workforce while also caring for their kupuna at home.

One caregiver, a businessman who survived years of looking after his mother and his wife before he lost them to age and Alzheimer’s, said, “It would have made all the difference to have been able to access $70 every now and then to hire a trained caregiver. I would have welcomed a little respite.” He shut down his cell phone business, closed three stores and laid off 15 employees because of the challenges of caregiving.

Businesses are feeling the impact of family caregiving. A recent Hawaii poll showed that nearly half of those surveyed reported that between 1-2 people from households caring for an elder have had to miss work regularly or intermittently. That’s roughly 100,000 Hawaii households that are affected. A businessman who heads the largest commercial printing company in Hawaii speaks of the challenge of “presenteeism” — being on the job, yet unable to focus — as well as absenteeism and stress from caregiving on his employees.

Hawaii would be the first state, when it passes Senate Bill 534/House Bill 607, to invest in the care infrastructure to support families and the fastest-growing workforce sector in the nation: home care.

By investing in care, and by vigorously opposing the current assaults on our democratic ideals, we honor the memories of our loved ones who lived through America’s darkest moments. Hawaii is the fulfillment of the promise of a multiracial democracy that supports the idea that we can all live, work and care for our families with dignity.

Ai-jen Poo, co-executive director for Caring Across Generations, is the University of Hawaii-Manoa’s spring 2017 Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals.