Five Reasons Why Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Poverty Remains Invisible


Josh Ishimatsu

In September 2013, the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (CAPACD), Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP), and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco hosted a briefing on growing poverty in the AAPI community. The event highlighted findings from a recently released National CAPACD report about AAPI poverty and generated an important discussion on promising strategies for addressing poverty and broader economic need in the AAPI community. The 2012 American Community Survey data show that AAPIs have had the fastest growing poverty population of any racial/ethnic group since the onset of the Recession.


This surprising statistic is driven by a dramatic increase in AAPI poverty from 2011 to 2012. The numeric growth of AAPI poverty represents almost a third of the total increase in poverty among the general population. Further, while the rates of growth in poverty population have slowed somewhat for other groups as the economy has improved, AAPI poverty is continuing to increase.

Racial/Ethnic Group # Increase in Poverty Population % Increase in Poverty Population
General Population 388,088 0.6%
American Indian/Native Alaskan -1359 -0.2%
Hispanic/Latino 30,681 0.2%
Non-Hispanic White 92,034 0.4%
Black/African American 121,782 1.2%
AAPI 100,108 5.0%

In other words, AAPI poverty growth continues to be dramatic, and I’m astonished that this isn’t a bigger story. As someone who cares about economic justice more broadly, it also concerns me that poverty isn’t a bigger story, period–that, for example, we aren’t talking more about the effects of the Recession on the poor as much as we’ve talked about the impact on the middle class (which has been real and serious and worth talking about, but homeowners aren’t the only ones hurting).  As someone who has spent most of my adult life working in the AAPI nonprofit sector, I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with the invisibility of AAPI economic need, and I have some thoughts on why AAPI poverty has been such a blind spot in our collective consciousness:

Reason 1: The Model Minority Myth

In his 1966 New York Times Magazine article, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” William Petersen used the term “model minority” (generally regarded as the first mainstream/high profile appearance of the term) to describe Japanese-American economic success in direct contrast to “problem minorities” who were defined by “a number of interrelated factors–poor health, poor education, low income, high crime rate, unstable family pattern, and so on and on–[which] reinforces all of the others, and together they make up the reality of slum life.” Over time, the model minority myth has expanded to include all Asian Americans and has dropped the explicit association with the notion of problem minorities (though the baggage is still there). It has also come to be connected with stereotypes of Asian Americans as good at math, technically gifted, nerdy, hard workers.  Elsewhere, I’ve written about how the model minority myth is damaging to everybody and why all of us should have a stake in dismantling it, but here, I want to focus on how the mythology overlays with the other factors described below and drives our shared understanding (or lack thereof) of AAPI economic need.

As a whole, AAPIs have higher household incomes and higher educational attainment than the general public, and while this success for AAPIs is real, it is not reflective of something inherent or cultural. AAPIs’ relatively good economic standing in this country is much more a product of immigration policy (hundreds of thousands of highly educated Asian immigrants over the past decades through programs like the H-1B Visa) and geography (the Pacific Ocean is a huge physical barrier for unauthorized migration driven by economic need) than it is about cultural or racial traits. Regardless of the legitimacy of the perception, many people believe that AAPIs are, by nature, economically successful and well educated, and those people fail to see the realities of AAPI poverty. This basic perception is a difficult hurdle to clear when presenting facts about AAPI economic need and is exacerbated by additional factors described below.

Reason 2: Geographic Concentrations of AAPI Poor in Relatively Few Regions

AAPI poor are concentrated in a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, with most of these MSAs in the western United States. The top 3 MSAs for AAPI poverty (New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco) contain over 30 percent of the total population of AAPI. The top 10 MSAs for AAPI poverty are home to over 50 percent of the population of AAPI poor. No other racial or ethnic group is as proportionately concentrated.  All other poor populations are more spread out in more places across the country. This means that for most people, there are proportionately fewer poor AAPIs in their region than the national population would indicate, and they are unlikely to regularly encounter AAPI poor people that would cause them to question their assumption that all AAPIs are economically well off.

Reason 3: Poor Neighborhoods with Active Commercial Districts

Even in places that have high concentrations of AAPI poverty, high density AAPI poor neighborhoods may not conform to what most people think a high poverty neighborhood should look like. San Francisco Chinatown is one of the city’s poorest, densest neighborhoods. In fact, on a basis of poor people per square mile, SF Chinatown is one of the densest concentrations of residential poverty in the country (along with New York Chinatown). However, SF Chinatown is a bustling center of economic activity; there are branch offices of over a dozen banks and the people who visit Chinatown generate significant economic activity in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, thousands of low-income people live in Chinatown, but their presence does not register because the busy streets and shops, the relative lack of graffiti, and the clean alleyways (which is a testament of Chinatown CDC’s work with youth leadership around neighborhood beautification) comport better with the assumption that AAPIs are doing well.

Reason 4: Concentrations of AAPI Poor in Mixed Neighborhoods

AAPI poor are more likely than the poor of any other race/ethnicity to live in census tracts that have no racial majority (i.e., no single racial/ethnic group comprises more than 50 percent of the tract’s population). Despite high concentrations of poor people in notable AAPI-majority neighborhoods like SF and NY Chinatown, poor AAPIs are more likely to live in neighborhoods that are majority people of color but not majority AAPI. This tendency of poor AAPIs to live in diverse, racially-mixed neighborhoods (places like central Long Beach and South Philadelphia) means that people may not identify poor AAPIs with the working class neighborhoods of color where they may live. There are over 7,300 census tracts in which poor AAPIs live and that are also majority people of color, but not majority AAPI. These census tracts average over 100 poor AAPIs per tract for a total of nearly 750,000 AAPI people below poverty (2010 5-year ACS).

Reason 5: Suburban Poverty Growth

Another geographic factor contributing to the invisibility of AAPI poor is the rapid growth of AAPI poverty in suburban communities. The proliferation of suburban pockets of poverty has garnered recent attention, and Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution have done ground-breaking work documenting this emergent trend. But, for most people, suburban poverty remains largely invisible.

Against this backdrop, the growth of the AAPI poverty population has largely happened in the suburbs. Using the Brookings Institution definitions of Central City/Suburb, roughly 75 percent of the AAPI poverty growth from 2000 to 2010 is attributable to increases in suburban AAPI poverty populations. Further, practically all of the growth in central cities is attributable to increases in AAPI poverty in only five regional areas: New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Philadelphia, Houston and Dallas. Outside of these five regions, practically all of the net growth in AAPI poverty populations happened in the suburbs. This includes AAPI suburbs (like Southern California’s western San Gabriel Valley) as well as the racially and economically diverse suburbs of places like Chicago, Washington DC, and Atlanta.

Josh Ishimatsu is Director of Research and Capacity Building for National CAPACD, the first national advocacy organization dedicated to addressing the housing, community and economic development needs of diverse and growing Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the management of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.

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