Refocusing the lens on AAPI communities

By Michelle Chen Mar 10, 2009

Waves of job cuts and foreclosures make it clear that not all boats rise or sink together, even when weathering the same storm. The Economic Policy Institute has analyzed the ups and downs of one group famous for striving toward the American Dream—and wipes away some of the model-minority veneer. Rather than viewing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as a monolithic bloc of high achievers, the EPI’s study saw parallel challenges besetting AAPIs and other communities of color alike. Within the population broadly categorized as “Asians,” there are clear disparities in earnings between Japanese and Chinese Americans versus immigrants and descendants from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, “whose lower educational levels generally relegate them to lower-skilled, service sector jobs.” Moreover, while APAs in general are often portrayed as doing as well or better economically than white Americans, gender and family structure shifts the picture. Among all subsets of the AAPI population, women earn significantly less than men (particularly for Japanese and South Asian communities). And the census data on median household income masks per capita income gaps between people of Asian descent and whites, because “Asian families tend to be larger and to include more workers than white families.” In terms of how well Asian communities have done in relation to other Americans in recent economic cycles:

Real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) earnings growth has followed national trends, trailing far behind productivity growth from 2000-2007. Like other racial and ethnic groups, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experienced gains in family income that were much stronger during the 1990s business cycle of recession and recovery than in the 2000s cycle. Although unemployment is lower among Asians than whites (3.3% versus 3.9% in 2007), the employment rate – the share of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the workforce – declined by 0.4% between 2000 and 2007. For Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S., the odds of living in poverty – 4.7 percentage points higher than among whites in 2000 – rose between 2000 and 2007.

It’s always challenging to graft broad statistical indicators onto real individuals and communities, whose cultural and social distinctions numbers don’t capture. But the EPI study does provide a counter-narrative to stereotypes that lead to blindspots in popular concepts of race and privilege.