One Size Does Not Fit All

Data and everyday racial labels mask the struggles of many Asian-American and Pacific Islanders.

President Barack Obama waves after signing an Executive Order restoring the White House Advisory Commission and Interagency Working Group to address issues concerning the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the East Room of the White House October 14, 2009 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Farah Z. Ahmad and Christian E. Weller
May 8, 2014, 1 a.m.

In­equal­ity is ubi­quit­ous. It per­vades all pop­u­la­tions — en­com­passing all ages, all genders, all races and eth­ni­cit­ies. But some groups in the United States face the symp­toms of in­equal­ity — such as poverty or lack of health in­sur­ance — at high­er rates than oth­ers. What may come as a sur­prise to some is that Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans and Pa­cific Is­landers rank among those who are faring poorly.

Data on Asi­an-Amer­ic­an and Pa­cific Is­lander sub­pop­u­la­tions are of­ten clumped to­geth­er in­to a single group by gov­ern­ment agen­cies and non­profit groups. Poli­cy­makers ul­ti­mately use that same data to identi­fy and the­or­et­ic­ally com­bat in­equal­ity. This pro­cess masks the high level of vari­ation — that is to say, some im­port­ant so­cioeco­nom­ic dif­fer­ences — with­in the coun­try’s fast-grow­ing Asi­an-Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tion.

The end res­ult: We lack a clear pic­ture of the AAPI pop­u­la­tion. Real and im­port­ant dif­fer­ences in the lives, ex­per­i­ences, and policy needs of many Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans are not only ob­scured but of­ten go ut­terly un­re­cog­nized.

Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment stat­ist­ics use a defin­i­tion of “Asi­an” that groups to­geth­er im­mig­rants from Asia and people of Asi­an des­cent born in the United States who have Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Thai, Hmong, Pakistani, and many oth­er back­grounds. There are reas­ons for this. Ac­cur­ate data can be dif­fi­cult to col­lect due to small sample sizes of Asi­an-Amer­ic­an sub­pop­u­la­tions and lan­guage bar­ri­ers. Vari­ations in the way Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans and in­di­vidu­als with Asi­an-Amer­ic­an her­it­age self-identi­fy also do not make more de­tailed data easy to gath­er or dis­trib­ute. Still, sim­pli­city in data-gath­er­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion can also gen­er­ate prob­lems.

It is easy to look at the post­sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment and house­hold in­come levels of Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans and as­sume the com­munity is thriv­ing. As a group, Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans ap­pear bet­ter off than Lati­nos, Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, and even non-His­pan­ic whites. But the real­ity is that many Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans are do­ing far worse than the gen­er­al U.S. pop­u­la­tion. Al­though the AAPI pop­u­la­tion as a whole has lower un­em­ploy­ment rates and high­er in­comes than the white pop­u­la­tion, it also has high­er rates of poverty and people without health in­sur­ance.

On one end are edu­cated Asi­an im­mig­rants who ar­rive in this coun­try to at­tend school. For ex­ample, In­di­an-Amer­ic­ans are more likely than oth­er Asi­an group to come to the United States on an edu­ca­tion visa. They are also more likely to be edu­cated and to ar­rive in the United States already pro­fi­cient in Eng­lish. As a res­ult, they per­form very well com­pared with oth­er Asi­an-Amer­ic­an pop­u­la­tions and even the U.S. pub­lic as a whole. In 2010, In­di­an-Amer­ic­ans had the highest me­di­an house­hold in­come of any group in the coun­try.

On the oth­er hand, nearly one in five Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans ar­rive in the United States as refugees or asylees without much wealth or edu­ca­tion. Oth­er factors like place of birth, im­mig­ra­tion status, cul­ture, and geo­graph­ic loc­a­tion also lead to dra­mat­ic­ally var­ied eco­nom­ic statuses between sub­pop­u­la­tions.

Some ex­amples: Banglade­shi-Amer­ic­ans have a poverty rate of 21 per­cent, while Filipino-Amer­ic­ans have a poverty rate of 6 per­cent. Korean-Amer­ic­ans are covered by health in­sur­ance at a rate closer to that of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans than that of In­di­an-Amer­ic­ans. Only 19 per­cent of Nat­ive Hawaii­an and Pa­cific Is­landers 25 years and older have a bach­el­or’s de­gree, the same rate of edu­ca­tion at­tain­ment as Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans in the same age group.

These are just some of the strik­ing and seem­ingly para­dox­ic­al con­tra­dic­tions with­in the lar­ger AAPI com­munity, that when ag­greg­ated to­geth­er, are masked.

What can be done, then, to en­sure ef­fect­ive policy-for­mu­la­tion? The first step to solv­ing any prob­lem is re­cog­niz­ing and ac­cur­ately dia­gnos­ing it. If we are go­ing to tackle the crises of poverty and lack of ac­cess to health care in spe­cif­ic AAPI com­munit­ies, we need to de­vel­op a bet­ter sys­tem of identi­fy­ing them.

To ac­com­plish this, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can make a num­ber of changes to the way Census Bur­eau in­form­a­tion on the AAPI com­munity is col­lec­ted. First, the bur­eau needs to de­vel­op a more nu­anced sys­tem for gath­er­ing and mak­ing pub­lic in­form­a­tion about demo­graph­ic groups and the sub­pop­u­la­tions with­in them. Second, it can cre­ate a cent­ral de­pos­it­ory of in­form­a­tion on com­munit­ies of col­or, in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans and Pa­cific Is­landers.

But un­til that hap­pens, ex­perts and aca­dem­ics are do­ing their best to show­case the di­versity with­in the AAPI com­munity. A new re­port series by the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress and AAPI Data, The State of Asi­an Amer­ic­ans and Pa­cific Is­landers, was launched in late April in an ef­fort to use data and evid­ence to put forth the most com­pre­hens­ive por­trait of the Asi­an-Amer­ic­an and Pa­cific Is­land com­munity yet. This re­port launched right be­fore Asi­an-Pa­cific Amer­ic­an Her­it­age Month this May, a cel­eb­ra­tion of the AAPI com­munity and its his­tory.

The AAPI pop­u­la­tion is the fast­est-grow­ing group in the United States. As this growth con­tin­ues, it is crit­ic­al to un­der­stand the di­versity that ex­ists among Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans in or­der to craft pub­lic policy that ef­fi­ciently and ac­cur­ately tar­gets the right com­munit­ies. With grow­ing di­versity comes a tre­mend­ous op­por­tun­ity to build a ro­bust, sus­tain­able, and com­pet­it­ive eco­nomy that be­ne­fits all Amer­ic­ans. Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans de­serve to be bet­ter rep­res­en­ted and un­der­stood as poli­cy­makers con­sider how best to ad­dress eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity.

Farah Ahmad is a policy ana­lyst for Pro­gress 2050 at Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, where her works con­cen­trates on the re­la­tion­ship between chan­ging demo­graph­ics and policy. Chris­ti­an E. Weller is a seni­or fel­low at Amer­ic­an Pro­gress and a pro­fess­or of pub­lic policy at the Mc­Cor­mack Gradu­ate School of Policy and Glob­al Stud­ies at the Uni­versity of Mas­sachu­setts (Bo­ston). 

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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