Contrary to the misconceptions perpetuated by the “model minority” stereotype, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities are among the fastest growing poverty populations, according to data compiled by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). From 2007 to 2012, the AAPI poor population grew by over 600,000 to almost 2.1 million.
Mindy Au and Michael Yee are a part of the National CAPACD’s Community in the Capital fellows for 2013-2014. Along with nine other individuals around the country, Au and Yee examined growing poverty in AAPI communities. Au is the Asset Development and Grants Manager of Interim Community Development Association. Yee is the former Director of Community Development at the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.
Last November, the group convened in Washington, D.C., to talk about National CAPACD’s report, Spotlight on Asian American and Pacific Islander Poverty: A Demographic Profile. The fellows worked to figure out the gaps and to determine the narrative. After the event, Au and Yee returned to Seattle to figure out the next steps to take locally.
Yee said it is surprising to people who hear the extent of the growing AAPI poor population because of the Pew Research Center’s 2012 report, The Rise of Asian Americans, which described Asians as a relatively economically successful population. National CAPACD’s report is aimed at focusing the attention back on AAPIs in need and to broaden the conversation about what it means to be AAPI collectively.
Au said that while the image of the “model minority” is changing, there isn’t enough data right now to figure out what is causing the poverty shift for AAPIs. Decreased funding to services may be a factor.
“Broadly, the poverty population is also affected by the decreasing support in our social systems,” Au said.
The report also indicated that the AAPI poverty population is increasingly native born. AAPIs in poverty are more concentrated in a limited number of metro areas than any other racial/ethnic poverty population. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are home to over 30 percent of the AAPI poverty population. These areas, and Honolulu, Hawai‘i, also have the priciest housing markets in the United States with almost half of AAPI poor living in those markets.
The highest populations of AAPI poor are concentrated in the Western United States, which consists of California, Hawai‘i, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
National CAPACD recommended an increase in resources for social services, coordinated efforts, and housing-based strategies to address this fast-growing issue. Because AAPIs have high rates of households with limited English proficiency, National CAPACD also recommended more culturally and linguistically appropriate solutions.
Finding these solutions are made more difficult by the complexities of poverty. Au said that there is a spectrum of poverty that needs to be addressed. Local social service organizations like the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in Seattle are working along that spectrum to make a difference, Au said.
The AAPI population itself is also very diverse. The largest population groups in poverty are non-Taiwanese Chinese at approximately 450,000 people, Asian Indian at about 250,000 people, and Vietnamese with about 230,000 people. In addition, the Hmong, Bangladeshi, and Tongan communities had the highest poverty rates.
Au described a strong need to enact a livable minimum wage to meet the rising and uncapped cost of housing in the Seattle area, as well as other basic needs. She also pointed to other underlying issues that needed to be addressed, including the protection of undocumented workers and victims of wage theft. However, collecting data on these individuals is difficult, Au explained, because they may not receive government benefits.
In addition, Yee said that there are both short and long-term issues affecting poverty. He mentioned that the debt settlement legislation can help alleviate the issues.
“The Washington Asset Building Coalition has a legislative agenda that includes the achievement gap, education issues, retirement savings to debt settlement,” Yee said.
The government is trying to restrict debt settlement places and regulate payday loans so they can’t take advantage of people living in poverty by charging absurdly high interest rates, Yee explained.
Yee also pointed to Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santo’s House Bill 1173, which expands the role the Financial Education Public-Private Partnership, a committee that brings together individuals from both the public and private sector in an effort to provide quality financial education for students in Washington’s public school system.
“[House Bill 1173] should pass this year,” Yee said. “From that standpoint, that’s a great thing to educate people on how to be smart with money.”
One optimistic piece of data to come out of the National CAPACD report is that AAPIs are moving to mixed cultural neighborhoods, which, Au said, is ultimately a good thing. For people to have rich, cultural interactions means population-based strategies can emerge to help a community move forward, much like it has in Seattle’s International District, Au explained.
“There are a lot of job creation initiatives and Washington does have a great community college system, and this enables people to use these opportunities to grow,” Au said.
While AAPI poverty is an ongoing issue with no quick-fix solution, becoming more educated about the issue can increase awareness of the problem, and eventually the community will start to see a difference, Au said.