Immigration Disguises Severity of Poverty Among Asians in U.S.

Immigration Disguises Severity of Poverty Among Asians in U.S.

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The influx of highly skilled, highly educated workers on H1-B visas from Asian countries in the last decade has skewed poverty statistics, according to a new report by the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD).

In 2011 alone, “there were over 90,000 H1-B visas issued to people coming from Asia.” These highly skilled, high-income immigrants have increased the pool of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) and caused the AAPI poverty rate to stay stable even though the actual number of AAPIs living in poverty has grown dramatically.

Between 2000 and 2011 the official AAPI poverty rate only increased by .3 percent. Yet during the same period, according to the report, the actual number of AAPIs living in poverty increased by 50 percent, which means there are roughly half a million more AAPIs living in poverty today than there were ten years ago.

“AAPI poor are one of the fastest growing poverty populations in the wake of the Recession,” states the report.

Nevertheless, it’s a population largely overlooked by a public that has typecast AAPIs as a so-called model minority.

So who are the AAPI poor?

The National CAPACD report uses US Census data and defines the AAPI poor as families and individuals living below the federal poverty threshold. Asian American and Pacific Islander ethnic groups with the highest concentrations of poverty are Hmong, Bangladeshi, Tongan and Cambodian. However, numerically, the AAPI poor is predominantly Chinese, Asian Indian, and Vietnamese. In terms of poverty growth rates, the ethnic mix of poor AAPIs did not change significantly between 2000 and 2010.

The US Census Bureau set the poverty threshold for 2012 at $11,945 per year for an individual under 65, and $23,681 for a family of four.

One surprising finding of the report is that poverty growth was higher among native-born AAPIs than immigrants—a rare trend for ethnic populations. This supports the theory that the influx of high-income Asian immigrants has masked increasing poverty within AAPI communities.

However, the author of the report, Josh Ishimatsu, is quick to clarify that AAPI immigration is not homogenous. Despite the increase of wealthy Asian immigrants, other AAPI immigrants continue to make up a large portion of that population’s poor. In fact, housing and health care service providers working with AAPI communities say that the vast majority of their clients continue to be immigrants.

Ishimatsu attributes the growing poverty numbers primarily to geographic location and concentration; AAPIs are “disproportionately concentrated in metro areas with the highest housing costs,” and “50 percent of all poor AAPIs live in the 20 most expensive real estate markets in the country.” Ishimatsu notes that in urban areas of high cost states such as California, it is not unusual for people to spend over 50 percent of their income on housing.

“Housing issues are a critical issue facing those Asian American communities living in poverty with so many of them in very high cost areas,” confirms Vivian Yi Huang, a director at Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), an advocacy group based in the Bay Area. In Oakland in particular, Huang says housing prices have risen so dramatically that many Asian Americans have been pushed out of their homes and in some cases, forced to leave the city entirely.

Other drivers of AAPI poverty include low English proficiency, high rates of self-employment, and employment and housing discrimination, Ishimatsu says.

What is more, he adds, the report does not fully capture the economic woes of AAPIs because the U.S. definition of poverty is not adjusted for location. Since so many AAPIs live in high cost areas hit hard by the housing bubble, many more AAPIs are “functionally poor” than would be assumed, simply by looking at the statistics.

Ishimatsu hopes the report pushes policy makers and community organizers to recognize the magnitude of AAPI poverty. “The big narrative is that poverty for Asian Americans is relatively stable,” he says. However, “AAPIs were hurt much more than people think.”