Pew Research Center’s Report on Income Inequality
Challenges Model Minority Myth

The Pew Research Center released a report last Thursday, which demonstrates that income inequality in the United States is now greatest among Asians. The Pew data underscores National CAPACD’s own documented data and research over the past decade with respect to Asian American and Pacific Islander poverty. AAPIs as a whole have been doing better economically since the 1970s, but there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of AAPIs living in poverty. AAPIs living in poverty are often rendered invisible by the “model minority” myth in America’s racial discourse. National CAPACD is encouraged by this report, which is an important contribution to the field and our own work to challenge the model minority myth, advocate for the needs of AAPIs living in poverty, and include AAPI voices in the conversation on wealth inequality in this country.

AAPI Economic Need is Real
The Pew report posits three main themes about the economic conditions of Asian Americans, themes that National CAPACD has been raising with policymakers, elected officials, funders, and thought partners for over a decade. The Pew report clearly demonstrates that Asian American economic need is real; “From 1970 to 2016, the gains in income for lower-income Asians trailed well behind the gains for their counterparts in other groups” (4). National CAPACD has also documented this need, though our research demonstrates that this need extends to Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities as well. National CAPACD’s analysis of poverty data collected from the US Census demonstrates that while economic gains since the Great Recession have meant declining poverty rates for most racial/ethnic groups, AAPI poverty population levels have not yet fallen below their post-Recession peak.

Racial/Ethnic Group

% Change in Poverty Population
from 2010 (approximate end of Recession) to 2016

General Population -4.2%
Non-Hispanic White -5.6%
Black/African American -7.3%
American Indian, Alaskan Native -3.1%
Hispanic/Latinx -4.0%
AAPI +12.5%
–AA +12.5%
–NHPI +12.6%

Source: US Census 1-Year ACS, 2010 & 2016

A Rising Tide Doesn’t Raise All Boats
The extent of AAPI poverty is obscured by growing overall income gains made by some Asian Americans. According to the Pew report, “Asians near the top experienced more growth in income from 1970 to 2016 than any other group while Asians near the bottom experienced the least growth,” making Asian Americans the most economically divided group in the country (6).

Racial/Ethnic Group 2016 Median
Household Income
% Change in Median HH Income from 2010 (approximate end of Recession) to 2016 – i.e. the same time period as above
General Population $57,617 +15.1%
Non-Hispanic White $63,155 +11.9%
Black/African American $38,555 +14.8%
American Indian, Alaskan Native $39,719 +13.3%
Hispanic/Latinx $46,882 +16.7%
–AA $80,720 +20.4%
–NHPI $57,112 +8.2%

AAPI aggregate success has eclipsed both AAPI economic need and stark economic division in the national political narrative. This reinforces the “model minority” myth and has very real consequences for AAPI community members living in poverty. Resources and opportunities  – public, private, and civil – do not benefit  low-income AAPI communities that need them the most. The demand to advocate for and document the needs of AAPIs living in poverty is even more urgent because of this compelling (counter) narrative that does not provide them with any material benefit and is so damaging to their opportunities to build wealth and sustainable futures.

AAPI Communities Need Disaggregated Data
The Pew report rightly demonstrates that our communities are extremely diverse; “Education levels and incomes vary widely among Asians living in the U.S.  In 2015, the share with at least a bachelor’s degree, among adults 25 and older ranged from 72% among Indians to 9% among Bhutanese, median household income varied from $100,000 for Indians to $36,000 among Burmese, and poverty rates ranged as high as 35% among the Burmese and 33% among the Bhutanese.” While National CAPACD and other AAPI advocates have long called for data to be disaggregated by ethnicity, we also need data disaggregation by education, employment, geography, etc. in order to truly capture the economic conditions of our communities and advocate for their diverse needs. Without such nuanced analysis, we run the risk of creating “model minorities” within disaggregated racial/ethnic categories as well.

A comparison of two Asian Indian populations in different areas of California demonstrates this point; the median household income in San Jose is $157,036 compared to $51,060 in Yuba City, reflecting the economic diversity within racial/ethnic categories. In San Jose, Asian Indian population growth is driven by Silicon Valley’s need for highly educated tech workers (e.g., H1-B visa holders) and median income is high. In contrast, the Asian Indian population of Yuba City is largely from a previous wave of immigration. Agriculture is the main occupation and the population has lower levels of income and education. Within nationality-level ethnic groups, there are diverse economic conditions among people who are largely unfamiliar to each other. Nuanced, disaggregated data is essential to advocate for the AAPI community, and it is crucial to position this data alongside knowledge-building within and across communities to raise awareness about one another.

Next Steps
National CAPACD hopes that the findings of the Pew report encourage continued research and analysis of the AAPI community, including data on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities. National CAPACD believes that by prioritizing the most vulnerable among the AAPI community in policy and practice, the economic divide in the AAPI community can be mitigated. Resourcing grassroots-level groups that know the nuances of their communities will allow them to explore solutions to the growing poverty and economic stagnation in the AAPI population. There is also a need for culturally-appropriate services because close to 80 percent of AAPIs are immigrants from non-native English speaking countries.

National CAPACD’s Executive Director Seema Agnani states “The Pew Research Center’s report draws attention to the stark economic inequality in the AAPI population. The success of some of us has contributed to the marginalization of many of us. We must challenge the dominant assumptions of our success, and we need to build solidarity within the AAPI community. We need to encourage the idea that successful AAPIs have a social responsibility to learn about, support, and lift up lower-income AAPIs who are unduly set back by the success of their community members. Wealth that is dangerously inequitable is not sustainable and thus, we all have a shared interest and benefit in lifting AAPIs living in poverty out of the margins.”

Check out media coverage on the Pew Research Center’s report on income inequality in America: