Hawaii Island leads state in population growth, despite some towns seeing declines

Hawaii Island continues to lead the state in population growth, but some of the 42 small towns that dot the island have seen population drop, according to detailed estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Unincorporated towns — known as “census-designated places” in census vernacular — suffering the biggest estimated losses are along the Hamakua Coast, with Laupahoehoe dropping an estimated 159 people, or more than 23% of its 2013 population. That’s followed by Honokaa, losing an estimated 597 people.

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Pepeekeo, Paauilo and Kukuihaele also showed estimated losses.

The numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, because the small population numbers lead to a higher margin of error and greater statistical uncertainty. But Mayor Harry Kim, who has a degree in economics, understands the logic of population loss along the Hamakua coast, which has yet to recover from the closure of the sugar plantations more than 20 years ago.

The estimates may also offer a peek into how the island population may show changes in the upcoming 2020 census, when every person is counted, rather than just a sample of them. The population figures are important. They’re used to determine political representation, federal funding allocations, for community development and to aid business planning, the Census Bureau, says.

The five-year American Community Survey estimates are also important because they’re the only detailed estimates for areas with populations under 20,000 people. The estimates describe the characteristics over a specific period of time, not a single point in time.

The Census Bureau produces estimates of a wealth of demographic, social, economic and housing variables, from how many people live in a housing unit and how they’re related, whether there’s internet and plumbing, who’s in poverty and how old they are and a ream of racial breakdowns.

For example, combining statistics on the population of those 65 and older with income shows that the state of Hawaii has the highest median household income for seniors, at $65,086, compared to $34,275 for households in Mississippi, the lowest, with a householder 65 and older, the Census Bureau said in a press release.

“The American Community Survey is vital to understanding different demographic groups across the nation,” said Victoria Velkoff, associate director for Demographic Programs. “This includes the 65 and older population. By looking at the latest data, resources can be provided to support not only the aging population, but all groups across the country.”

Laupahoehoe is a good example of what happens to areas where jobs are scarce. The macadamia nut industry was supposed to take over after the sugar plantations closed, but that didn’t happen.

“You take away the economic driver and you don’t replace it with anything,” Kim said. “It’s a beautiful place to live but a very difficult place to make a living, because no matter where you live, you have to find a place to work.”

Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter believes the influx of vacation rentals could have contributed to population drops, but she said residents may not be responding to Census surveys.

“Most of the young families are always out and about, either working or with keiki activities,” Poindexter said. “They may not have realized how important it was to make some time to participate in the census.”

On the other side of the coin, bedroom communities for Hilo and Kailua-Kona are seeing estimated increases. Kurtistown, a straight 11-mile commute on Highway 11 from Hilo, is booming, according to census estimates. The town added an estimated 457 people over the past five years, an astounding 53% increase. Other Puna towns also showed increases.

“The most important thing is where they work,” Kim said, “and they work in Hilo.”

The Census Bureau said in April that it’s too early to tell what, if any, effect the May 3, 2018, eruption and subsequent lava flow had on population.

“We are accounting for housing units destroyed by the volcano, but this will have no impact on the population,” Amel Toukabri, chief of the bureau’s Local Government Estimates and Migration Processing Branch, said at the time.

Officials didn’t respond to a follow-up question by press-time Friday.

On the west side of the island, Hawaiian Ocean View is growing as a bedroom community, as housing prices increase in Kailua-Kona. That area grew by an estimated 30%.

At 47 miles away, it’s a long commute, but Kim said he knows at least one family that moved there because of the cost of living in Kailua-Kona.

The Big Island is still kissing the 200,000 population mark, but it hasn’t officially topped it. Still, between 2013 and 2018, the island added an estimated 10,614 people, a 5.67% increase. That compares to a 5.52% increase for Maui, a 5.16% increase for Kauai and a 2.38% increase for Oahu, according to the five-year estimates.

Other estimates paint a less optimistic picture of population movement on Oahu, which with its much larger population, drags the entire state average down. The updated one-year estimate for the state as a whole shows the state grew less than 1% over the past five years.

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The numbers are no surprise to Kim. He attributes Hawaii Island’s increase to affordability. The median price of a home on the Big Island is less than $400,000, about half the price of homes on the other islands.

“The census means more than numbers to me,” Kim said. “It’s a very good picture of who we are and what our needs are.”

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