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Increasing Poverty Among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the Danger of "Positive Stereotyping"

J. Mijin Cha

Among immigrant groups,  Asian American/Pacific Islander communities are often stereotyped as a “model minority,” and an immigration economic success story. However, this stereotype masks the wide diversity -- ethnic and economic -- that exists within the Asian and Asian-American communities.

A new report from the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development highlights the increasing number of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) living in poverty. Among the report’s findings:

  • AAPI poor are one of the fastest growing poverty populations in the wake of the Recession. From 2007 to 2011, the number of AAPI poor increased by more than half a million, representing an increase of 38% (37% increase for AAs in poverty and a 60% increase for NHOPIs in poverty). The general poverty population grew by 27%. The only other racial/ ethnic group with a larger percentage increase was Hispanic, with a 42% increase. 
  • Dramatic increases in AAPI poverty have not been reflected in the poverty rate. Despite an increase of over 50% in the number of AAPIs living in poverty from 2000, the AAPI poverty rate has changed little from 2000 (12.8% in 2000, 13.1% in 2011). Large increases in the numbers of AAPI poor have been accompanied by large increases in the overall AAPI population base, including large numbers of highly skilled, highly educated immigrants.
  • The AAPI poverty population is increasingly native born. Almost 60% of the net increase in AAPI poverty was in the native born segment of the population. The proportion of native born poverty is higher for NHPIs than for AAs; however, for both populations, the rate of increase and the net numeric increase was higher for native born poor than for immigrant poor.
  • This is in contrast to the AAPI non-poor population—particularly for AA non-poor—where immigration accounts for the majority of net population growth.

The increasing poverty rate among native born AAPI indicates that the majority of attention given to the small segment that is economically successful masks the struggles of millions of AAPI. The report also points out that the AAPI community is much diverse than just a few ethnic groups, which requires more nuanced, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual support.

The increasing poverty among the AAPI community shows that there is no such thing as positive stereotyping. By placing a “positive” stereotype of the model minority on AAPI, the millions that struggle for economic security are ignored. It is a lesson that continues to be taught—stereotypes are the language of hate and oppression and must be eliminated from our social, economic, and political structures if we ever have hope of a “post-racial” society.