“Crazy rich Asians.” “Tiger moms.” “Model minorities.”
These are common stereotypes that reinforce a mythology that Asians—a catchall term that refers to a diverse array of people who come from countries thousands of miles apart with distinct cultures and languages—are an affluent monolith.
A landmark study of California’s diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander community paints a portrait of communities that are more complex and more challenged than has been previously understood.
Our new research, funded by The James Irvine Foundation, used interviews with nearly 2,700 Asian American-Pacific Islander Californians across nine ethnic subgroups. Conducted in seven languages, the findings show just how much these stereotypes limit our perceptions of the real challenges the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities face.
Surprisingly, nearly one in four Asian American-Pacific Islander Californians are in the workforce and yet are still struggling with poverty.
If we look just among those workers, that number rises to nearly four in 10 who are working and struggling with poverty. These numbers are particularly significant, given that Asians constitute the largest share of immigrants coming to the United States, and that Asian American and Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing racial groups in the country.
Even these startling numbers only tell part of the story.
Because we were able to look at specific ethnic subgroups, we discovered a state of “two Californias” among Asian American and Pacific Islanders—one where some workers report a great deal of financial stability and one in which others report significant financial insecurity and struggle.
For example, 44% of Hmong and 36% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Californians have the highest proportions of their populations who are working and struggling with poverty–44% and 36% respectively of each group meeting that definition. And 26% of Californians of Cambodian or Vietnamese descent, 23% of Chinese Americans, 22% of Filipinos and Japanese Americans, and 20% of Indians are working and struggling with poverty, as are 15% of Koreans.
It is important to note that our study showed that no Asian group is exempt from the struggles facing Californians.
The relatively large numbers of Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and Korean Americans in California mean that they, too, are well-represented among the millions of California workers who are struggling with poverty.
For example, Chinese, 30%, and Filipinos, 24%, account for a majority of Asian American-Pacific Islander Californians who are working and struggling with poverty.
The survey also illuminates what these struggles feel like in the everyday lives of Asian American-Pacific Islander Californians, at home and at work.
Nearly half, 45%, of these workers who are struggling with poverty report that they have reduced meals or cut back on food to save money, and more than one third say they have put off seeing a doctor or purchasing medication for financial reasons in the last year.
At work, more than one third of Asian American-Pacific Islander workers who are struggling with poverty report they have experienced some form of wage theft by employers, and nearly three in 10 say they have faced racial discrimination over the last year.
By looking more closely at all these communities, we can stop painting all Asian Americans with a broad brush that erases the distinct cultures and experiences of individuals and harms people who don’t meet a tidy image of quiet, hardworking, striving Asian Americans who will pull themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve the American Dream.
This groundbreaking study underscores the need to include Asian American and Pacific Islanders in policy conversations and investment decisions that support communities who are working hard but still struggling to make ends meet.
Failing to do this masks the perspectives and needs of these specific communities, effectively disenfranchising people who don’t fit the stereotype, are working hard, and genuinely need help.
One size does not fit all, and we need investments for struggling workers if we want California’s economy to allow families to survive and thrive.
While there are some nonprofits and others who are organizing Asian American and Pacific Islander workers and giving them more voice on statewide and local issues, we can, and must, do more to ensure that voices from the rich array of these individuals are heard and supported.
Note: The 2019 AAPI Working Californians Survey was conducted by PRRI and AAPI Data and funded by The James Irvine Foundation.
Karthick Ramakrishnan is a political science and public policy professor at UC Riverside, [email protected]. Robert P. Jones is the chief executive officer of PRRI, a research firm in Washington, D.C., [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.