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The Inclusive Economy

Addressing the Economic Needs of Low-Income Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

By Inemesit Imoh, Guest Contributor on 05/01/2012 @ 03:30 PM

Tags: Federal Policy

On May 1, 2009, President Barack Obama proclaimed the month of May as Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In a similar vein to African-American History Month, the President wants the United States to come together to recognize and celebrate the rich diversity of languages, religions and cultural traditions of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders that continues to shape American culture and society.

Since the first Asian-American and Pacific Islander immigrants arrived over 150 years ago to those who arrive today, there are now over 17.3 million U.S. residents of Asian descent living in the United States, or 5.6 percent of the total population. This population is also the fastest-growing population in the United States today, growing 46% between the 2000 and 2010 censuses. Addressing the needs of a quickly increasing population of Americans is important for lawmakers; however, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) populations are often the last demographic that many consider in relation to poverty.

AAPI households are often stereotyped as “successful” minorities who have achieved the American Dream, who earn higher wages and who are not dependent on government assistance as a result. This is a generalized and overly simplistic view of AAPI households, which neglects to examine the complexities and differences within the population. While it is true that the AAPI population as a whole is economically better off than African-American or Hispanic populations (in 2009, Asian households had the highest median household incomes among race groups at $65,469 and had the lowest poverty rate among race groups at 12.5%), there are great discrepancies between Asian groups that are rarely addressed.

  • Cambodian, Vietnamese, Hmong and Laotian workers were most likely to work in low-wage industries (e.g. production, transportation and material moving), according to 2000 Census data.
  • The incomes of these groups were substantially lower than the median for all Asian families. The median incomes of Hmong and Cambodian families were the lowest of all Asian groups ($32,400 and $35,600, respectively).
  • While Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Indian and Korean households had a higher high school graduation rate compared with the national average, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong and Cambodian individuals had graduation rates that were substantially lower. For example, Japanese high school graduation rates were 91.4%, compared with Hmong rates of 40.7%.

AAPI households are not a monolith. Lawmakers and advocates should be promoting and encouraging efforts to address the needs of low-income groups and populations, while recognizing that America is a diverse nation comprised of groups that have different but specific needs. CFED supports asset-building policies that would benefit all American households, including AAPI households.

  • Retirement security policies would greatly benefit AAPI seniors. Many Asian seniors are foreign-born, linguistically isolated, have little education and have poverty rates higher than the national average for all seniors. Policies like Automatic IRA would allow younger Asians and Pacific Islanders to save towards their financial security in their later years and increase the economic security of households shared by adult children and their elderly parents.
  • Policies that encourage families to save for higher education would also greatly benefit low-income AAPI households. Research has found that having a savings account significantly improves the likelihood of students attending college. Reforming asset tests to allow for families to save in vehicles like 529 College Savings Accounts, Coverdell ESAs or Individual Development Accounts would allow students to plan and save for their academic futures and, as a result, their economic mobility.

The economic security of low-income, minority households will continue to be an increasingly important issue as the demographics of the United States change and evolve. Policies and programs must be put in place to help these families move up and out of poverty as it is imperative to the long-term economic stability and growth of the country. Honest and open discussions about the individual needs of different groups in America will help advocates, lawmakers, researchers and communities craft the necessary tools and strategies to carry out that mission.


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