Us too: Acknowledging the struggles of Asian Americans

Isaias Garcia passes a mural at Haven for Hope of Bexar County, a community-base center for homeless men and women. Photo by Tamir Kalifa

Women of color are making history this year, winning key primary election races in Texas and across the country.

Here in Texas, Lupe Valdez became the first Latina to win a major party nomination for governor, and in Georgia, Stacey Abrams is the first African American woman to win a major party’s nomination for governor. Gina Ortiz Jones is the first lesbian, Iraq War veteran and first-generation Filipina-American to win a party nomination for a U.S. House seat in Texas. 

These victories are important for all women of color. Along with other black, brown, Native American and Asian Americans — like me — we can celebrate the milestones as persons of color.

Alongside those victories, however, many fail to understand that some Asian Americans also face strong obstacles to opportunity as well as high rates of poverty. Asian American families’ struggles hardly fit the “model minority” stereotype of a high-achieving, affluent immigrant community.

“Please tell me when I didn’t have an uphill battle,” Valdez said in her acceptance speech.

Her words took me back 20 years, when I was serving dinner at a local homeless shelter in Dallas with my Sunday school class. I was startled to see a woman standing across from me in the food line who was Asian American like me. 

Since the Great Recession, Asian American poverty rates have soared nationwide. The National Coalition for Asian Pacific Community Development reports that two million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country live in poverty and are one of the fastest-growing poverty populations. 

From 2007 to 2011, the number of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) poor increased by more than half a million — an increase of 38 percent. Almost 60 percent of the net increase in this group was in the native-born segment of the population.   

The AAPI poor are concentrated in the West and in New York. AAPI poverty has increased in every region of the country, with some of the largest increases in the South.

Over 40 percent of all poor Asian Americans and over 75 percent of all poor Pacific Islanders are in the region that includes California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. In those states, 50 percent of the poor AAPI population lives in the 20 most expensive real estate markets in the country. By comparison, 17 percent of the general poverty population lives in the 20 most expensive housing markets.

The Asian American Pacific Islander poor are more concentrated at a neighborhood level than any racial/ethnic group and live in “majority minority” neighborhoods where a minority group — or a mix of minority groups — comprises more than 50 percent of the population. Diversity of languages, cultures, family structure and timeline of when each family immigrated affect opportunities to thrive.

Certainly, these are lower poverty rates than other groups, but rising more quickly. A 2016 US Census Bureau reports that of the 40 million Americans living in poverty, 11 million are Hispanic and nine million are African American.

The overall AAPI community has an 11 percent poverty rate; the Hispanic rate is 22 percent and the rate among African Americans is 25 percent. However, for Asian ethnic groups like Hmong, Bangladeshi and Cambodian, the poverty rates are higher.

report by the Asian Americans Advancing Justice, based on 2010 census data, shows there were 17.3 million Asian Americans making up 6 percent of the U.S. population. 

Asian Americans represent diverse ethnic groups. East Asians including Chinese, Korean and Japanese represent 40 percent. Southeast Asians including Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Thailand, Laotian represent 28 percent. South Asians including those from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh represent 22 percent.

Many nonprofit agencies — particularly those in Texas — may not be aware of their needs or are not able to offer their services and support in the many different Asian languages spoken by these residents. Many agencies may not understand cultural nuances which could make services more appropriate. 

To help build awareness of the needs in the Dallas Asian American community, local Asian women have come together through the Orchid Giving Circle to support grants to nonprofit organizations that provide culturally appropriate social services and promote awareness of North Texas Asian Americans.

It is a necessary move.

Equality of opportunity is one of the founding principles of American democracy. No one can be excluded from the search for solutions.

Cynthia Yung

Executive director, The Boone Family Foundation