Asian-Americans are often thought of as doctors. Bankers. Success stories. While those examples exist, Asian-Americans are by no means monolithic. There’s a whole other side to the minority group that goes undiscussed.
There’s the elderly retired Chinatown restaurant worker who has limited savings and must share an apartment with several other people. There’s the Cambodian refugee dealing with the trauma from living in a war-torn country and trying to start over in the Bronx with limited English. And there are many others who have yet to see their American dreams come true.
In fact, there are more Asian-Americans living in poverty in New York City than any other minority group. Their stories, however, are rarely told.
Recently, dispelling the model minority myth has become a major issue as Asian-Americans from disadvantaged communities become more vocal about how their experiences differ from the stereotyped narratives the public hears so often.
Nonprofits are calling for disaggregated data, publishing their own research and reaching out to help disadvantaged Asian-American communities. They say the belief that Asians are successful across the board hurts the community and keeps funding from those in need.
A Problem Rooted In Labels And Appearances
““The model minority myth chooses to highlight the successful immigrant examples and brush aside the high rates of poverty.””
Disadvantaged Asian-Americans’ needs are seldom addressed, and experts say the model minority myth is partially to blame. Because of the frequently perpetuated stereotype that Asian-Americans are successful, the realities of poor Asian-Americans get ignored, Jo-Ann Yoo, executive director of the social services nonprofit Asian American Federation, told HuffPost.
“The model minority myth chooses to highlight the successful immigrant examples and brush aside the high rates of poverty,” Yoo explained. “The myth assumes that we somehow have the capacity to work ourselves out of poverty without any help.”
More than one-quarter of Asian-Americans live in poverty in New York City. An estimated 26.6 percent live below the city’s poverty threshold in 2014 ― an increase from the year before, the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity reported.
The circumstances of poor Asian-Americans are diverse. Asian-American seniors are the most financially vulnerable of the group, with almost 1 in 4 living in poverty, a report from the Asian American Federation noted. Those from refugee communities, including Cambodians and Vietnamese, also experience higher rates of poverty. Recent immigrants, including Bangladeshi-Americans, have high poverty rates as well, Yoo said. And many of those in need are not proficient in English.
Perhaps most surprising is that Asian-American poverty rates remain higher than those of other groups despite the group’s higher levels of educational attainment, a Social Indicators Report from the Mayor’s Office of Operations mentioned.
The Role Of The Media
““To address this problem, it is vital to address not only the consistent collection of disaggregated data, but also its reporting and accessibility.””
Research and news coverage have helped paint an incomplete picture of Asians in America. Stories like Nicholas Kristof’s piece “The Asian Advantage,” proclaiming the success of Asian-Americans, continue to be circulated. (The New York Times ended up receiving swift backlash for ignoring the narratives of Asian subgroups who, on average, are not faring well.) And many other well-respected organizations are just as guilty.
Pew Research’s 2012 “Rise Of The Asian-Americans” piece was heavily criticized for failing to delve into the experiences of subgroups. The report exemplifies a larger issue ― aggregated data’s role in perpetuating the model minority myth.
Research often treats Asian-Americans as monolithic and ignores the diversity of their experiences. People from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are more likely to struggle than people from China or India, notes Christian E. Weller, a senior fellow at the Center For American Progress who co-penned an eye-opening report on Asian-American wealth disparity. But lumping all Asian-Americans together for research purposes fails to show this.
“We are invisibles and [are] living in many intersections of oppression,” Chhaya Chhoum, executive director of Mekong NYC, a group that helps Southeast Asians in the Bronx, told HuffPost. “To address this problem, it is vital to address not only the consistent collection of disaggregated data, but also its reporting and accessibility.”
Stories of wealthy, privileged Asians aren’t doing the community any favors. Yoo mentioned that they have actually harmed people in need by overshadowing their stories and masking a need to allocate resources to them.
Despite their poverty rate, Asian-Americans aren’t receiving many resources in New York City. From 2002 to 2014 ― a 13 year period ― they received 1.4 percent of the city’s social service funds.
How Crunching Numbers Can Help Solve The Problem
““The best solutions come from the community itself, and we need to support those voices and efforts.””
That’s why Yoo’s organization has been highlighting the struggles of Asian-Americans in need, she told HuffPost. In addition to serving as an incubator for several growing Asian-American organizations, it conducts research on topics like Asian-American poverty ― an area that’s often neglected in poverty studies.
The Asian American Federation has published reports on the needs and challenges that Asian-American seniors face, government funding gaps, and the obstacles that immigrant small businesses deal with in the community. Yoo mentioned that a large part of the group’s work entails raising awareness about key Asian-American issues.
“Nonprofit leaders are struggling to keep up with the service demands, given the scarcity of resources,” Yoo said. “They are constantly working from a place of scarcity, so we’ve been advocating for more government resources to support their work.”
Chhoum explained that Mekong NYC works with Southeast Asian refugee communities that have not only been affected by urban poverty but also by refugee poverty. The group provides case management in Khmer and Vietnamese, helping people obtain public housing and navigate other public services. It’s important, she says, because most programs are not available in the languages her community is comfortable with. Mekong NYC also runs arts and culture programs for those in the community to preserve their heritage.
Ultimately, stereotypes don’t portray Asian-Americans accurately. To actually help the people in need, Yoo suggests a good place to start: “The best solutions come from the community itself, and we need to support those voices and efforts.”