The Asian American Wealth Gap: Too Often Ignored

Ignoring subgroups of Asian Americans can have far-reaching consequences, but we can change that.
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Co-authored with Karishma Shamdasani

Why is there only one check-box on official forms for Asian Americans when, as a group, they represent 48 culturally diverse countries and have a population of over 17 million people?

Last year, The Pew Research Center reported that by 2055, Asians will be the largest immigrant group in America. Yet the term "Asian American" often evokes an overly specific image. It is one of tiger moms, students with perfect SAT scores, white collar jobs, a proclivity towards math and science, and economic statuses that surpass even some of the wealthiest white Americans. In all, Asian Americans often are presented as the model minority.

The model minority myth is an egregious pigeonhole that ultimately diverts attention and resources from overshadowed Asian American subgroups. This is demonstrated by the sharply lower median incomes and higher poverty rates for Southeast and South Asian ethnic groups. To say that all Asian Americans have the same economic or social experiences would be far from the truth. Many Asian American subgroups struggle financially, and the model minority myth only worsens the narrative of the truth.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD) are both working to address the frustrating depictions that lump all Asian Americans into a single category, especially when it comes to understanding their financial lives. Surveys and reports that treat Asian Americans as a homogeneous group do damage by placing a refugee from Cambodia in the same category as a software engineer from India, or a physician from China. These groupings skew the data for all Asian Americans. Indian Americans, for example, had a national median income of $92,418 in 2011, while for Bangladeshi Americans, it was $45,185. When economic reports show Asian Americans with incomes equal to or surpassing that white Americans, they fail to consider the struggles of people whose families immigrated from places that face immense economic challenges.

Let's consider metropolitan Los Angeles County. Tongan (78%), Bangladeshi (57%), and Cambodian Americans (53%) in Los Angeles County have higher rates of poverty than any other racial group, including Latinos (51%) and African Americans (40%). Yet the overall Asian American poverty rate--significantly lower than other groups at 27%--is skewed by high-performing groups, such as Taiwanese (19%), Indian (19%) and Japanese Americans (18%).

The recent study, "A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles County," that 16% of Asian American families in Los Angeles County have three or more workers contributing to income, a significantly higher proportion than white families (10%). This is not uncommon for Asian American families across the country, whose cultural principles lend towards multi-generational households with several working adults. But data collection methods are not ideal for understanding these nuances. In other words, data can actually hide the truth instead of revealing it: failing to consider these cultural differences makes Asian Americans' income seem higher than it is.

"But Los Angeles is an anomaly," you may be thinking. But, if we look to metropolitan Dallas, which has a lower overall population of Asian Americans, we see that Burmese (31%) and Nepalese Americans (33%) have higher poverty rates than any other racial group, again including Latinos (23%) and African Americans (21%). Yet the Asian American poverty rate in Dallas is 11%, about a third of the poverty rate of the Asian American subgroups most in need. A third of Burmese and Nepalese Americans live in poverty and yet both, are still subject to a constrictive stereotype of academic and financial success. This stereotype tells us that these groups are a privileged minority, and thus they have no reason to protest or seek help.

Head east to the nation's capital and the trend continues. In the D.C. area, Nepalese (16%), Indonesian (16%), Pakistani (14%) and Burmese (14%) Americans have the highest rates of poverty. The only other ethnicity that comes close is African Americans, whose poverty rate stands at 14%. With the Asian American poverty rate at 6% (almost the same as the poverty rate for whites, at 5%), the struggles facing Asian American subgroups is easily swept under the rug and out of sight.

Anyone who believes Asian Americans are successful in this country is not completely wrong. However, for every Asian American person who manages to excel in this country, there is another who does not. Entire populations of Asian American subgroups are living below the poverty line, practically invisible, because of an overblown stereotype supported by misleading data.

Though data that accounts for ethnicity exists, they are few and far between. Ignoring subgroups of Asian Americans can have far-reaching consequences, but we can change that. National CAPACD suggests the best way to address Asian American poverty is to tailor efforts to each community by language and cultural approach and to empower each subgroup to become politically active and build networks with local institutions. We urge you to visit National CAPACD's website to see how you can support their efforts to conduct research to help us better understand Asian Americans' financial struggles.

Lawmakers, nonprofits and advocates can only target certain Asian American subgroups if there are data to direct and support their efforts. Without such data, the general population continues to see all Asian Americans as a single entity, meaning vulnerable groups do not receive external further support. Poverty in Asian American communities will continue to be ignored if we allow the damaging narrative of a homogeneous, upper middle-class Asian American population to perpetuate. Now is the time to disaggregate our data to understand the lives and financial struggles of Asian Americans.

Karishma Shamdasani is an undergraduate at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) majoring in Political Science.

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