Poor, Asian, and Invisible

Contributor Wendy Forbes discusses the peculiar bind that being poor and Asian puts one in.

a year ago

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I attended a state university for financial reasons. My parents earned a little too much for me to qualify for federal grants, but much too little to start a college fund for me. This was symbolic of the messaging that I had received growing up in a household that was financially uncomfortable: We were the typical lower-middle class household that was ignored by media, government, and nonprofits for being too “rich” to qualify for assistance, but unable to afford much beyond the basics. It was no surprise that I would be on my own to fund my full-time undergraduate course load and all living expenses. I was able to borrow enough from federal lenders, and I planned to work part-time during the academic year. While everything worked out in the end, it may have gone a different way had I known about a scholarship that was offered through the university.

About one week into the fall quarter, I met with my faculty adviser, which was required of all incoming first-year students. I do not remember how funding my college education came up, but when it did, I explained to him that I took out federal loans and would work part-time. He asked if I had received any money from the Minority Scholarship. I had never heard of it, so he explained that it could pay up to half of one’s entire tuition bill every year, and the only requirement was to be a “minority” student. The application deadline had already passed for the current year, so I asked if I could try the following year. He shook his head and informed me that only incoming first-year students can apply before fall quarter classes begin, and there were no exceptions. He guessed that the financial aid office ignored me when they sent out the scholarship information due to my white-sounding name, which I had received from my adoptive white parents.

It made me wonder if there are others as unaware as I was, or why more people are not talking about low-income AAPIs who are being ignored.

Despite the trajectory that my financial situation put me on, what I missed out on because I needed to work in addition to juggling my courses did not compare to a truly difficult living situation. Recently I have been learning about the high levels of poverty and food insecurity among Asian American and Pacific Island (AAPI) communities. The findings were shocking and contradicted the typical narrative in media that most AAPIs are educated and affluent, or well on their way. It made me wonder if there are others as unaware as I was, or why more people are not talking about low-income AAPIs who are being ignored.

I have always known that AAPI is not a monolithic racial group because being an adoptee has made me aware that not all AAPI-presenting people have the same background, even though that seems to be the prevailing assumption, including among AAPIs. Like many people, most of what I thought I knew about AAPI came from media, and while I usually mistrust media for their penchant to oversimplify, I will cautiously accept what they tell me until I find something compellingly contradictory, and that is what happened when, a few weeks before this year’s AAPI Heritage Month, I started researching poverty and food insecurity among AAPI populations.

Many people know about AAPI Heritage Month, which occurs every May, as a planned moment to celebrate the achievements of a few famous AAPIs, but we should not stop there. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to help the untold numbers of AAPIs nationwide who struggle to meet basic needs. These ignored AAPIs cope with poverty-related hunger, and they are slipping through the holes of the social safety net due to not being counted in poverty data, not participating in the federal nutrition programs that are designed to help people in need, like them, and not receiving attention from nonprofits and other advocacy groups.

One of the reasons for the public’s disconnect with this reality is the stereotype that AAPIs are well-off, highly educated, gainfully employed, and earning enough to live like “Crazy Rich Asians.” But the truth is that many AAPIs struggle with poverty and hunger, making the already offensive misnomer “model minority” even more inaccurate than it already is. Other reasons are the lack of culturally appropriate services and the scarcity or absence of AAPI language skills to perform outreach in areas where AAPI community members have limited English proficiency.

Photo of computer screen filled with code
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

AAPIs are often absent from conversations about poverty and food insecurity, which means they are not factored into policies and programs that could affect and help them. Two of the reasons that AAPIs are ignored in this context are AAPI data are often mishandled, or AAPI are missing from the data altogether. Because AAPI is a small group, compared to other racial groups, it tends to be undersampled in data studies and treated as a homogeneous group, which lead to data results that hide the high levels of income inequality and food insecurity when comparing AAPI ethnic groups. The assumption of homogeneity is untrue because, in addition to the other differences mentioned below, there are dozens of ethnicities and languages that comprise the AAPI racial group. The distortion or lack of AAPI representation in food insecurity and poverty data wrongly suggests that there are few or no AAPI communities in need of social safety net programs. With the upcoming 2020 census, AAPI data are more important than ever to capture the numbers and proportions of AAPIs who are being ignored so that they receive much-needed government resources.

Blacks and Latinx are included in such data more often, so it is not surprising that they are the foci of nonprofits, government, and media to improve these marginalized groups’ social, political, and economic status quos. This should not change, but what should change is the exclusion of AAPI from the same type of coverage because all three groups have struggled to achieve equality on multiple levels as a group and within their diverse and respective subgroups. Exemplifying this for AAPI is that it has become the fastest-growing racial group in the US, with the fastest-growing — and widest — wealth gap, making AAPI the most economically divided racial group.

The distortion or lack of AAPI representation in food insecurity and poverty data wrongly suggests that there are few or no AAPI communities in need of social safety net programs.

AAPI households tend to have higher median wealth than other racial groups, but the comparisons should not end there. Too often AAPI households with a certain income level are touted as proof that the entire racial group is doing well, especially when compared to other disenfranchised groups, but this assumption ignores data that show the average AAPI household has more people and more income earners than the national average. In many cases, individual AAPI wage earners make less than comparable single-income household earners. For example, an AAPI household that earns $50K per year may appear to be doing well enough until you drill down and see that there are three income earners for a large household that includes extended family members and multiple generations living under one roof.

The earning potential of AAPI employees also is a problem. Data that are disaggregated by race and gender show that AAPI men and women are the least likely to become executives in private industry, suggesting that AAPI staff are overlooked for promotions and career-building opportunities more often than any other racial group, including those who are from other underrepresented groups. Because AAPI employees’ earnings usually remain low, due to career plateaus, AAPIs are just as much at risk for economic inequality and insecurity as other vulnerable racial and ethnic communities. When comparing AAPIs to whites, even when they have the same educational attainment, AAPIs have substantially less wealth (more than 30 percent less).

Asian Americans earn a greater number and higher levels of college degrees nationally and above other groups (per the linked resource, I use “Asian Americans” instead of “AAPI”). Nearly half of Asian Americans 25 years or older have a BA or higher (US: 28 percent); and 21 percent of Asian Americans have advanced degrees (whites: 14 percent). Just like with median household income, digging deeper into the numbers gives a different view of who is included and ignored in statistics that appear to be positive. About three-quarters of Indian Americans have a college degree, whereas less than one-third of Vietnamese Americans and less than one-fifth of Laotian Americans and Cambodian Americans can say the same. The disparities in education levels among AAPI ethnicities contribute to the growing income inequalities within AAPI as a whole. There are earnings gaps between AAPIs with and without college degrees, whites with college degrees and AAPIs without, and the aforementioned wealth disparity between AAPIs and whites with similar education. AAPIs who lack education, income, and other resources are more likely to be ignored because they have fewer or no options to advocate for themselves and much-needed improvements.

The average AAPI household has more people and more income earners than the national average … AAPI staff are overlooked for promotions and career-building opportunities more often than any other racial group, including those who are from other underrepresented groups … The disparities in education levels among AAPI ethnicities contribute to the growing income inequalities within AAPI as a whole.

In a report on life in San Gabriel Valley, California, otherwise known as “the capital of Asian America” (“Asian America” and “Asian American” are used for consistency with the linked resource), Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles shatters the “model minority” myth by focusing on an ignored Asian American community that should be as well-known as Flint, Michigan. In San Gabriel Valley, Asian Americans have lower educational attainment than whites, and are more likely to die of cancer than any other group. This is partly because numerous Asian Americans who live there are not US citizens and do not receive health care. As the report suggests, “Disproportionately immigrant and undocumented, Asian Americans and Latinos share many similar experiences in the San Gabriel Valley.” We often hear about the struggles in Latinx communities, and we should, but we also need to hear about challenges in AAPI areas, especially if they are similar to other marginalized groups. We also need to hear about the other AAPI communities that have remained ignored or invisible for too long.

Across the country, poverty rates are high among several AAPI ethnicities, ranging from nearly 18.5 percent (Laotian American), to 29 percent (Cambodian American), to 38 percent (Hmong American), but participation rates in the federal nutrition programs (such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP) are very low among AAPIs. The poverty rate is over 25 percent among Malaysian Americans, nearly 17 percent among Thai Americans, and 15 percent among Vietnamese Americans; yet the participation rates in SNAP are just over 3 percent, less than 2.5 percent, and less than 4 percent, respectively. When you compare these data to the overall US poverty rate (15.5 percent) and SNAP participation rates (13.7 percent), the contrast is staggering.

When the topic of protecting SNAP is covered by nonprofits, a constant theme is how not enough eligible people participate because of unnecessary barriers. While true, AAPIs are rarely, if ever, mentioned, but they should be. Unless if helping AAPIs is part of an organization’s mission statement, they are too often ignored. Despite the number of self-proclaimed woke and benevolent people who work on social safety net programs, they tend to regard blacks and Latinx as the only underrepresented groups in need of attention and help. AAPI people need to disagree — noticeably — with this assumption if it is going to change.

Image of speaker behind microphone
Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

The ignorance shared by many in government, media, and nonprofits points to the broader issue that the voices of AAPI people are too often absent, quiet, or only heard for a short time when an injustice is noticed. It is imperative that AAPIs refuse to be ignored; that they step up, speak up, and, most importantly, refuse to give up until a new status quo has emerged that takes all AAPI realities into account: those who have a lot, those who have a little, and everyone in between. It also is important to include AAPIs from all backgrounds, including those who were born in the US, those who immigrated (e.g., by choice, through family, or adoption), and those who entered the US for any other reason (such as a refugee or an asylee). A plurality of voices would demonstrate that AAPI is not a minority group with “model,” monolithic, or other limiting characteristics, but instead is diverse, dynamic, and evolving.

There are more AAPI voices in mainstream media than ever before, which may be better than not having any, but there needs to be more AAPI voices in all spaces. AAPI realities are not comprehensively covered in most communications, so it is up to AAPIs to be their own advocates. In addition to working on AAPI issues, AAPI advocates need to work with other disenfranchised groups to amplify shared issues and learn from each other, or else risk becoming siloed and competitors for the same limited resources. Being siloed makes it easy to become forgotten, and AAPI cannot afford to be ignored any longer.

A plurality of voices would demonstrate that AAPI is not a minority group with “model,” monolithic, or other limiting characteristics, but instead is diverse, dynamic, and evolving.

Such siloing reminds me of my college campus and the lack of collaboration between the on-campus groups that focused on racial and ethnic identities. These groups could have supported each other, which could have led to more remarkable results, but instead, they worked alone, failed to connect with anyone outside of the group, and became invisible, the opposite of what they wanted to achieve. I experienced this during my junior year when I became involved with the AAPI student organization. For context, I waited until my third year because, as I said earlier, my lack of financial resources forced me to prioritize employment (after classes), and the jobs available during my first two years used up any leftover resources that I could have spent engaging with on-campus groups.

Despite working part-time during all four academic years and full-time during the summer months, I had enough debt after graduation to make me nervous about adding to it by pursuing another degree. Without a high-enough-paying job on the horizon, and the first loan payment due after a too-short grace period, I joined the Peace Corps because my loan payment schedule could be put on hold and I heard that some of my debt would be forgiven for my service. I acknowledge my motivation was not altruistic. At that time in my life, I made decisions based on the limited options I had. Despite those limits, I knew that having a few options was better than not having any, which may be partially why I have no regrets. Do I wish that I had not been ignored when there were opportunities available that could have helped me? Of course. Do I wish that I had the same resources as my peers so that I could compete with them for the same resume- and career-building opportunities? An unequivocal yes. But I am good with where I have ended up.

For most of my career, my work has focused on helping people who are typically ignored. Perhaps one of the underlying reasons is because I do not want others to feel ignored the same way that I have. I cannot know what it is like to live in poverty or with food insecurity, but I try to be sensitive by drawing on the closest experiences that I have had: I attended a K–12 school that provided free breakfast and lunch to all students because the poverty level in the school district was so high; I worked physically demanding, part-time, hourly-wage jobs between high school and college and again when I returned to graduate school 15 years later because they often were the only jobs available to me; and I experienced food insecurity alongside my host family, colleagues, and students when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.

It can be difficult to lift yourself up out of poverty no matter who you are. It can be much harder if you are AAPI because of the additional racial, ethnic, linguistic, and other barriers. For too long, the nation as a whole has ignored people, especially AAPI, who lack basic needs. That needs to end. For obvious humanitarian reasons, AAPIs who are able to help other AAPIs should, starting with paying attention to injustices that have been going unnoticed or unacknowledged. Every AAPI person is important in the quest to advance the group as a whole because the collective cannot progress as far as possible if individuals are being left behind. The time is now to help low-income AAPIs get the basic needs that they lack; address the education, income, and other inequalities that hold back some AAPI populations; raise AAPI’s multifaceted profile in public discourse; and, most importantly, assert AAPI as a positive and notable force right now and in the future.


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Wendy Forbes

Published a year ago