Asian-Americans: Smart, High-Incomes And ... Poor?

Asian-Americans have the highest income and education levels of any racial group in the country. So it might be surprising that they have a higher poverty rate than non-Hispanic whites. Michel Martin discusses the issue with Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute and Rosalind Chou, co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we have another perspective on poverty in a place you might not expect to find it or, rather, among a group of people. May is Asian-American Heritage Month and, over the course of the month, you might have heard it said that Asian-Americans enjoy the highest income and level of educational attainment of any racial group in this country.

So it might surprise you to know that Asian-Americans also experience a higher rate of poverty than non-Hispanic whites. According to a National Academy of Science's analysis of census data, Asian-Americans have a 12.3 percent poverty rate. That compares to 9.8 percent for non-Hispanic whites.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Algernon Austin. He is the director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute. That's here in Washington, D.C. He's written about the issue for the institute.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ALGERNON AUSTIN: It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us, Rosalind Chou. She's a sociology professor at Georgia State University. She's also co-author of the book, "The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian-Americans Facing Racism."

Welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

ROSALIND CHOU: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Austin, I'll start with you. The Pew Center found that Asian-Americans have a significantly higher median income than the general population. Sixty-six thousand dollars a year compared to just under $50,000. The first question, you know, that comes to mind is, how is it possible that the median income is higher, but there's still a significant poverty rate?

AUSTIN: Well, the Asian-American population is quite diverse and there are many highly educated Asian-Americans, but the actual Asian-American population that does not have a high school diploma is actually higher than the white race, so you also have significant numbers of low wage earners among Asian-Americans.

MARTIN: Is it mainly educational attainment or are there other common factors, like geography, for example?

AUSTIN: Oh, well, geography matters a great deal because Asian-Americans are also concentrated in some of the highest cost-of-living cities, so about a third of the Asian-American population lives in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco and those cities have a quite high cost of living. So, actually, when you take into account the cost of living, the Asian-American poverty rate is about two and a half percentage points higher than the official rate.

MARTIN: Professor Chou, why don't you pick up the thread there, as well? Are there people from certain countries who are more likely to be poor than people from other countries or are there other commonalities among Asian-Americans who tend to be poor, who are living in poverty?

CHOU: The thing about the Asian-American group is that it encompasses over 50 nations and then there are different ethnicities involved in that, as well, so it's a large group that's lumped together. And, with that, there are different types of immigration that have happened that affect whether they're refugee status or they came over for educational purposes or work purposes.

So, with that, Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese - they're largely immigrated to the U.S. via political or refugees because of war and, in that case, their circumstances are different that would affect their educational attainment and their income levels.

MARTIN: What have you found as sort of the defining factor? Is it refugee status or is that generally the main reason that people tend to be poor?

CHOU: In my research, I've also found that the Hmong, in discussing education and culture with them, my Hmong respondent said, in their culture, it wasn't valued over family and agriculture. And what you'll find in the Midwest, the Hmong population - there's a lot of ginseng farming, not that push for educational attainment and just, in general, those groups still don't overshadow the fact that even East Asian descent Asian-Americans have higher rates of poverty and still higher rates of not having a high school education or less than a high school education, as well.

MARTIN: Mr. Austin, you've just mentioned that a third of Asian-Americans live in some of the most expensive places in the country, New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. You started to tell us why that factors into these poverty rates. Does that mean that, if these people lived somewhere else, they wouldn't be poor or is it that people are concentrated in places where poverty is more prevalent, anyway? What's the impact of that?

AUSTIN: No. The impact is simply cost of living. So by the official poverty rate, the Asian-American poverty rate is higher than the non-Hispanic white poverty rate. But that official rate does not take into account cost of living and when you factor in the fact that it costs more to live in San Francisco than in Topeka, Kansas, for example, then you see that those rates are considerably higher.

One important factor in the poverty rate that we see - the high poverty rate goes back to what I said before, that there are significant numbers of Asian-Americans who did not complete a high school diploma, so that's a factor.

The other thing to keep in mind, even at the high end, when you compare Asian-Americans individually by educational attainment, you still see that they earned less than non-Hispanic white males, for example. Particularly at the high school level, there's a significant difference, so white men earn about $10,000 more than Asian men with just a high school diploma.

MARTIN: You know, Professor Chou, your book is called "The Myth of the Model Minority," which suggests that there really isn't perhaps a general understanding that poverty exists among Asian-Americans. Do you think that there is some consequence to that?

CHOU: Absolutely. So the first consequence is, externally, people not realizing that there are issues with this racial group. Then, in my research, I found that many Asian-Americans were discouraged to talk about any problems they had that had to do with perhaps racial discrimination, that families even encouraged their children to not say anything and don't rock the boat. That was the term that came up over and over again.

I had an example on a college campus where a group of Asian students wrote a report on the state of Asian-American affairs on campus and even Asian-Americans on campus - they were the biggest backlash because they didn't want to say, oh, we're not a problem minority. We don't have it as bad as, say, this group or that group, so why are you drawing attention to our issues? And we don't have any.

MARTIN: Mr. Austin, I did want to ask about that. I mean, even though Asian-American poverty is higher than that of non-Hispanic whites, it's still lower than other significant minorities in this country among African-Americans and Hispanics. So, given that, can you argue that this ought to be a priority and, if so, how? How should we be talking about this?

AUSTIN: Oh, yes, absolutely. I mean, you know, I think we're a rich country and we should do more to address poverty across the board. The issue for Asian-Americans is, because there is a high median family income, this issue is it's harder to get the resources and the services to low income Asian-American communities and, also, when you break it down by specific ethnic groups, the Hmong, the Bangladeshi, they have poverty rates that rival the African-American poverty rate.

MARTIN: Professor Chou, as a final thought from you about what kinds of ways would be productive to talk about this? Can you think of conversations that we should be having about this that would be constructive?

CHOU: We have to get past the notion of being in a post-racial society and that, for Asian-Americans, while poverty rates across the board, as a group, don't look as bad as perhaps other racial groups, that there are consequences to living in a country with a racial hierarchy. The mental health rates are alarming in terms of depression and suicide.

MARTIN: Rosalind Chou is a sociology professor at Georgia State University. She was with us from member station WABE in Atlanta. Algernon Austin is the director of the Race, Ethnicity and the Economy Program at the Economic Policy Institute. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

AUSTIN: Thank you.

CHOU: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Just ahead, Christine Ha was like a lot of kids when she was growing up. Mom's cooking was just something to eat, not celebrate.

CHRISTINE HA: I just thought that good food by your mother was just something that everyone had at home and it wasn't until she passed away that I realized I really missed her cooking.

MARTIN: But, now, Christine's all grown up and a master chef herself and she's been trying to recreate her mom's recipes ever since and we'll dig in. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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