Despite ‘model minority’ trope, 1 in 10 Asian Americans lives in poverty

NYC Census 2020 holds a rally outside the Flushing Library, with elected officials and community-based nonprofits. Deputy Director, Amit Singh Bagga, is seen being interviewed here, talking about the dire importance of the 2020 Census to our communities in terms of funding and representation. Photo courtesy Varsha Mathrani

When the Office of Management and Budget recently announced it was adding new racial and ethnic categories to the Census for the first time in 27 years, large Asian American advocacy groups rejoiced.

Asian Americans who traditionally only had one option when identifying their race – Asian – would soon have more options to identify themselves. The next Census will also allow them to identify their country of origin: Chinese, Asian Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, or Japanese.

The changes are key to dismantling what many in the Asian American community call the “model minority myth,” activists say.

The myth, a set of stereotypes which casts Asians as more hard-working, quiet and more successful than other groups, paints an inaccurate portrait of the fastest-growing racial group in the United States with origins in 19 countries, they say. It also clouds the many problems Asian Americans face such as poverty, especially in refugee populations, advocates say.

“The model minority type is a mixed bag in a way,” said Ellen Wu, said associate professor in history at Indiana University Bloomington. “On the one hand, it’s allowed Asian Americans to escape the most extreme versions of everyday violence and discrimination … But really, it’s been a lot more detrimental.”

Asian Americans generally fare well economically compared to the overall U.S. population. In 2019, the median annual household income for an Asian American family was $85,800, compared with $61,800 among all U.S. households, according to the Pew Research Center.

However, income levels vary widely among Asian Americans. Among households headed by Burmese Americans, the average household income is $44,400; for Indian Americans, it’s $119,000. Filipino households earned an average of $90,400, while Nepalese households made $55,000.

More than 2.3 million Asian Americans, at least one in 10, lived in poverty in 2022, according to a new Pew study.

To properly direct government help and resources to the people who need it most, data should be split up among the many groups that represent the overall Asian population in America, advocates say.

“Disaggregation of data is needed for Asian American communities because the model minority myth is a very real thing for us,” said May yer Thao, president and chief executive of the Hmong American Partnership, or HAP, a nonprofit serving immigrants and refugee communities in St. Paul, Minn.

The collection of more detailed data about the country’s Asian population is among several big changes the OMB announced to the next Census in 2030.

The country’s Middle Eastern and North African population, or MENA, will be recognized as a distinct ethnic identity for the first time.

Traditionally the Census has asked people to identify their race and ethnicity separately. Now, they will be part of the same question. So Latinos, for example, will be able to identify as such without having to also identify as a separate race, such as Black or White.

The term “Far East” will also not appear in the next Census and will be replaced with “Central or East Asia.”

While the changes have been heralded by many advocacy groups, some say they doesn’t go far enough. The disaggregation of data should also be done on a state and local level, Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said.

The OMB declined to comment on whether it would be collecting enough data. An 2023 White House policy statement on advancing Asian American communities, included data disaggregation among its goals. “To ensure that [Asian American] and [Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander] populations are empowered by and benefit from federal programs, surveys, and equity assessments, federal data collection should include greater disaggregation of data,” the report reads.

So far, 13 states have at least one law on the books that require disaggregation of race or ethnicity data. Four of these laws were passed in 2023 – in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Nevada, according to a 2023 report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

At least 21 states are currently considering laws relating to data disaggregation by race and ethnicity, including Alabama, Indiana and Vermont, according to the leadership conference.

But not everyone supports this approach. Asian Americans for Equal Rights worries about the privacy implications of collecting such data, said Helen Yang, vice president of the group.

“Data is a double-edged sword,” Yang said. “Of course, having data is good. But how are you going to use that data?”

Yang, who is Chinese American and immigrated to the United States in the 1990s to study electrical engineering, said that she is concerned that more refined data could be used by law enforcement and other government entities to target Chinese Americans during the ongoing tension between the United States and China.

“When something goes wrong and people are looking for someone to blame, they are immediately going to think of us,” Yang said, pointing to the increase in hate crime incidents during the pandemic as a recent example of people targeting Chinese Americans.

To direct government aid to the people who need it most, it may be more helpful to ask people about the language they speak at home, Yang said. Overall, 72 percent of Asians speak English proficiently, according to Pew. But while 95 percent of U.S.-born Asians speak English, just 57 percent of Asian immigrants do the same. Those differences in language acquisition can make a significant difference in someone’s economic success, advocates say.



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