There is a lack of disaggregated data on Asian poverty in New York City. Asians in poverty are hidden behind the veil of the “model minority” stereotype, which masks the fact that even within the broader racial category there are ethnic groups that have drastically different levels of poverty. According to The New York Times, Asians are the fastest growing racial/ethnic population New York City, having doubled in size since 2000 and nearing 15% of the population.
Yet, Asians are underrepresented in data, and many studies describe the lack of understanding that stems from this. According to the 2019 New York City NYC Government Poverty Measure, 23.8% of Asians are in poverty by municipal standards. This is the highest rate of all racial/ethnic groupings, which include White, Black, and Hispanic/Any. Due to a mistaken belief that Asians do not need financial aid (a consequence of the image of the “model minority,” or the idea that Asians are hardworking overachievers who are closest to the idealized White success), both the government and Asians themselves overlook the poor Asians who need lifelines. The Asian American Federation reports that in 2014, the Department of Social Services provided an average of $600,000 to Asian American community-based organizations (CBOs), while the average contract dollar amount they distributed to other affinity groups was $1.4 million. Meanwhile, Asians had the highest poverty rates in New York City NYC at the time. What further complicates the issue is that even within the broader category of “Asian,” disparities arise when examining specific ethnic groups. For example, the highest poverty rates among Asians in New York City by ethnic group are Pakistani (28%), Bangladeshi (27%), Arab (26%), and Chinese (22%). The diversity within Asian American backgrounds makes it difficult for general policies and programs to assist those that are not well-represented or specifically addressed.
What research and subsequent policies must be implemented in order to create a pathway out of poverty for Asians in New York City towards greater economic security? This question has become relevant as the Asian population in New York City and the United States in general continues to be the fastest growing population. It is especially concerning as the poorest ethnic groups in New York City—Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Chinese—have seen tremendous population growth in recent years. After generations of under-representation in national and popular media, Asians have been becoming more and more visible as figures like Andrew Yang, an Asian American Democratic presidential candidate, and Simu Liu, the first Asian lead in a Marvel movie, bring Asians into the spotlight. Conversations are happening around Asian representation in this country, and discussions on poverty within this community have the perfect opportunity to ride this wave of discourse.
Ultimately, the goal of any policy that addresses this issue is to reduce Asian poverty overall in New York City. Some possible policy alternatives that aim to address this goal are as follows:
- Funding research for disaggregated data on poverty in the Asian communities of New York City: viewing Asians as one homogeneous group with no accommodation for differing levels of poverty within different ethnic groups, language proficiency, educational attainment, occupational achievement, etc., leaves little room to create policies catered towards helping specific groups rise out of poverty. If all people are to have their needs addressed, policymakers must first be aware of those needs through awareness of the issues.
- Expanding language accessibility through Local Law 30 and adult English language classes: The City Council passed Local Law 30 in 2017, requiring 35 city agencies to provide language access services for 10 languages (Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Arabic, French, Urdu, and Polish). These languages cover the Asian ethnic groups with the highest rates of poverty in New York City, but there are still others that require attention, such as Sinhala, Vietnamese, Hindi, Japanese, Thai, and Filipino. The city and its departments should continue emphasizing the need for multilingual social services, as working Asians particularly need updates on information regarding small businesses, safety net programs, and workforce development programs.
- The city should continue building pathways for Asians to learn English by supporting and funding existing programs such as the city’s We Speak NYC program and the various community-based organizations (CBOs) hosting learning opportunities. English language skills are vital for working-age Asians, as 63% of working Asians in poverty had Limited English Proficiency (LEP) while 40% of Asian workers who were at or above the poverty line qualified as having LEP. The city and CBOs should also cooperate in spreading awareness of existing programs to the community.
- The city must aside a portion of its social services budget specifically for smaller CBOs, giving those that serve the Asian community better chances for funding. From 2002 to 2014, Asian CBOs received 1.5% of the $6.6 billion contract dollars available from the Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services. It is recommended that, in order to provide more proportionate funding to serving the Asian population with the highest poverty rate in New York City, the Human Resources Association/Department of Social Services fund CBOs that can provide linguistically and culturally appropriate aid to Asian New Yorkers who are eligible.
By acknowledging and addressing the specific needs of the Asian American community, the city can aid this population in getting out of poverty.