Follow the Money: Eye-Opening Arithmetic

Malia Blom Hill

Follow the Money: Eye-Opening Arithmetic

By Malia Hill

“Aid…” “Help…” “Equality…” These are the kinds of words that make you feel benevolent. After all, it’s good to help those in need who may be contending with financial difficulties, cultural erosion, or lack of opportunities. Unfortunately, the kind of help we’re giving often reflects far more on us and the professional granting and charitable industries than anything else. Which leads to the question of whether all those nice, benevolent emotions we’re enjoying help anyone but ourselves. It was to further examine these kinds of questions that the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii launched 4HawaiiansOnly—a Web site and project that examines grants made for the benefit of Native Hawaiians.

An examination of the database of grants at www.4hawaiiansonly.com finds 681 separate grants from the federal and state governments (including OHA grants) that are intended to benefit those of Native Hawaiian ancestry. (And this is only since fiscal year 2007, and doesn’t include the grants being allocated now for 2011.) The total money involved? It is $246,464,873—about one quarter of a billion bucks. That translates, with the help of some basic arithmetic, to an average of $361,916 per grant.

In Hawaii, Native Hawaiians (including children) make up about 20 percent of the population, or about 240,000 people. It’s tough to say how they benefit from the numerous grants for Native Hawaiians—aside from the money put aside for Native Hawaiian Homelands, one of the few grants with measurable and obvious outlays and beneficiaries.

But let’s return to the money question for a moment. What if, instead of spending the funds on community centers and oral history projects, we simply divided it among Native Hawaiians? That would leave each person with about $1,026 in cash. For a family of four, a couple with two children, that comes to $4,104.

But wait . . . this doesn’t take into account the wealthy or middle class among the Native Hawaiians. With so many of the grants focusing on the disadvantaged, it doesn’t seem fair not to take that into account. So we’ll remove the wealthier Native Hawaiian citizens from the calculation and only apply it to those in poverty—assume 25 percent—as beneficiaries.

That leaves us with about 60,000 people who could really use help and aid. Now, if we do the direct distribution, each needy Native Hawaiian would get $4,107, with a family of four getting $16,432. This raises the interesting question of whether your average Native Hawaiian family would prefer to receive the benefits of a new cultural center and sustainable garden or a check for $16,432. (And recall that this is only funds spent in the last 3 years. Imagine a check covering the grants of the last few decades.) Of course, this is just the raw math, without taking into account administrative expenses, overhead, the high penalty of having a large number of bureaucrats to hire, and so on.

Just for the fun of it, let’s take that check back from the family of four and try to figure out how much of this well-intended money is actually making it past the administrative stage:

For an average grant of $361,916 let’s stipulate that the grant program has 3 employees. (Don’t worry—we won’t pay them well.) If there is an average of $35,000 in gross costs per employee, that would amount to $105,000. This is, of course, a gross expense, including all employee costs like insurance, Social Security tax, other taxes, medical insurance, etc. That means the actual salary involved would be $30,000 or less and, after deductions, the average take home pay would be modest, like $26,000. (I told you we’d be cheap about it)

Needless to say, this assumed salary is on the low side, or you’d see a lot more OHA trustees taking the bus to work. Then there is rent, telephones, equipment and office supplies, accounting and legal services, meetings etc. Let’s allow $18,000 for that. The total to be deducted from the grant amount is $123,000, which leaves $238,916 to get the job done. To sum it up: 34 percent for overhead, leaving 66 percent to achieve the purpose.

Is this just an interesting intellectual exercise? Of course not. Working out the actual dollar figures involved goes to the heart of the question of whether these grants are effective and whether they’re effectively helping Native Hawaiians. And the point about administrative fees isn’t just a jab at the bureaucratization of charity. In fact, finding the answer is one of the main reasons for the creation of www.4hawaiiansonly.com –- to find out how much of each grant goes to overhead expense. Or, to put it another way, how much of each grant actually gets to the intended recipients and with what effect? Does this fulfill the intent, the purpose of the grant?

Of course, with such an immense goal, the project depends heavily on the netroots participation. This is why each grant in the 4HawaiiansOnly database is also entered in the 4HawaiiansOnly Wiki—so that the people can participate in the research and share their findings. This might mean you. (We certainly hope it does. And we’ve included lots of help on the website to give amateur researchers a place to start—including a letter for generating Freedom of Information Act requests.) In our view, it makes perfect sense for this to be part of a public research project—it is public money, after all. So, if you are interested in such research, don’t hesitate to contact us at 4hawaiiansonly@gmail.com. After all, unlike government agencies and professional grant machines, transparency groups thrive in the sunlight. In fact, we can’t wait to get your thoughts on the money breakdown above.

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