Poverty and the “Model Minority”

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month draws to a close during this election year, I wanted to draw attention to the issue of poverty as it remains quite significant in light of the recent recession. Believe it or not, poverty is a real issue for Asian Americans. I write this with the understanding that many Americans hold to an onerous stereotype sometimes described as the model minority myth.  

The myth asserts that certain minorities are so exemplary in their socioeconomic achievements that they stand apart in contrast to those “other minorities” who don’t share the same degree of material success. Asian Americans are described as being today’s model minority. The singular number is intentional as American society likes to keep race and ethnicity simple: apparently all Asian Americans are alike in their successes. How do we know this? The Census! When you see Census figures based on race, it sure looks like Asian Americans do stand out. In the past 2 censuses they showed above average incomes. What accounts for this remarkable feat?

Part of the answer lies in questioning what we mean by “Asian.” When we look at the same Census information and split Asian Americans into particular demographic cuts we find that this “Asian” similarity of success only applies to a very select group within this racial label.

One way to demonstrate this is to study those who aren’t doing so well economically. That’s what Drs. Isao Takei and Arthur Sakamoto did in an article published last year. If a group is supposedly doing really well economically, we would expect that they would have a lower proportion in poverty. As Takei and Sakamoto show however, different Asian Americans are sometimes proportionally more in absolute poverty (where household income is lower than the threshold established by the Census of minimal standard of living for the composition of the household) and relative poverty (living below 50 percent of median household income [adjusting for composition of household]). Another way to think of these is relative poverty = working poor (households with limited welfare assistance but basically cover the minimum of their bills) and absolute poverty = the poor needing welfare assistance. These are like concentric circles where anyone in absolute poverty is also in relative poverty by definition.

Using data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (which Congress wants to discontinue) for 2005 and 2007, they were able to show the following

screen capture from article p260 of Sociological Perspectives 2011

I know it’s a lot, you can’t accuse them of not being thorough. In 2005-2007, White non-Hispanic absolute poverty was about 9%, and relative poverty is 18%. Asian American absolute poverty in that same time frame and sample is 10% and relative poverty is about 20% – these are significantly higher than non-Hispanic whites statistically speaking. If Asian America is about 17 million people this means that at least 2-3 million are in poverty. Keep in mind that the ACS is usually not translated, so we don’t know if there are more folks in poverty if they don’t return the survey because they can’t read it.

Overall Asian Americans are not proportionally less in poverty compared to non-Hispanic whites. But Takei and Sakamoto don’t stop there. They also showed the poverty rates for different kinds of non-Hispanic whites and different kinds of Asian Americans so that we’re really comparing apples with apples so to speak. The average starting age of minimal financial dependence on one’s parents they use is 25 years. So they show that 6.9% of whites who were born in the US and 25 or older were in absolute poverty. About 5.4% of US born Asians 25 and older were in absolute poverty. This particular cut of the Asian American population seems to exhibit the socioeconomic success that seems to be ascribed to the entire group – hence the problem of stereotypes. It would be almost excusable (almost) for this stereotype’s persistence if US born Asian Americans over the age of 24 were the majority, but they constitute less than a third of Asian America.

Notably, look at the list of Asian ethnic group poverty rates- the variation is enormous. On the one end about 5.4% of Filipino Americans are in absolute poverty whereas 27.7% of Hmong Americans are in this same category – and yet both groups are lumped together as Asian American.

In the new millennium we’re able to learn about how mixed-race Americans fare as well. Again the differences from white non-Hispanic poverty rates are huge. Only 4.1% of Chinese-Filipinos are in poverty, but some might say that this is not a real racial-mix in America-after all, both groups are Asian. So the next lowest group in absolute poverty would be White-Chinese at 7.1%. And at the other extreme, 18.5% of Black-Koreans are in absolute poverty.

So we have more evidence that there’s a ton of socioeconomic diversity among Asian Americans and calls into question why we hold onto stereotypes that presume that they are all model minorities. And we would only know this as a result of the American Community Survey. Such awareness can do a world of good in correcting our preconceived notions of race and socioeconomic attainment. And it’s worth thinking about who are the poor in our own environments. Some of them will be Asian American.

Share your other observations about any other patterns you see in this table. And get a copy of the article, there’s lots more illuminating detail.

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  • andrea

    It’d be interesting to see how children and family size play into this equation. I don’t know that “household” gives me enough information. I suspect that in some groups, a household consists of only 1 or 2 members, but in others, a household consists of 4-8 members (including older, uneducated/non-employed outside the home parents). Both households could earn the same amount, yet the one with more members may be in relative poverty. It seems there are too many generalizations here. :)

    • Jerry Park

      Touche Andrea, I apologize for having to write these with less detail than it ought to have. But hopefully folks like you will take some time to read the real article and get a convo going with the authors. thanks again for commenting!

      • andrea

        I didn’t mean to poke at you, Jerry, but the data leave so many questions unanswered.

        I wonder, also, how many of those households are headed by women. As in the Titanic disaster, the gender breakdown may be skewed. For example, if many males in a certain country died as a result of war and their survivors are now here, wouldn’t that have an impact and skew the survey results? And of the bi-racial groups, how many are the result of unions between American soldiers abroad and “local women”? Those “local women” may not have been educated or skilled to begin with and once they have arrived in this country, may not have had the support of the children’s fathers or the community support of either racial group.

        • Jerry Park

          These are great points Andrea. My memory of the article is a little fuzzy but there is some discussion over the meaning behind the mixed-race labels and foreign-born status. Takei and Sakamoto tried to account for a lot of different angles, but the “female headed household” issue may also be an important line for future research on this.