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In Plain Sight

For Asian Americans, Wealth Stereotypes Don’t Fit Reality

It's Not Who I Am 1:19

When Rosa Chen first heard one of her college classmates ask her if she was rich, she says she didn't quite understand where the idea was coming from. "Everyone I grew up around was struggling economically like us," she said.

Chen, 19, grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown, one of three daughters of immigrants. Her father is a restaurant cook and her mother does not work because of a disability.

"I was surprised that people would see me as rich," said Chen, who is also a community activist in her hometown. "There was a stereotype about Asians being rich because they live here in San Francisco; like we must be made of money."

Chen is studying communications at the University of San Francisco, a school she says she could only afford to attend because of the sizable financial aid package she was offered. It was there, in college, where she was first confronted with the durable and simplistic cultural notion about Asian-American class status - an idea, opinion researchers say, has taken firm hold in popular opinion.

"There's an assumption that white Americans make about Asian-American social class status based on racial identity. It's the idea of the model minority; that Asian Americans are successful, high income, studious, hard working, quiet," said C.N. Le, PhD., a University of Massachusetts sociologist. "That's the prevailing image that white Americans have and it's of course a set of stereotypes."

On the one hand, based on the most common metrics of class position—income and education—Asian Americans as a whole are doing better than any other single racial group, earning more on average than whites, and more likely to graduate from college.

But like the rest of the country, income inequality among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders - a diverse grouping of more than 48 ethnic groups - is vast. According to analysis of census data released this week by Karthick Ramakrishnan, PhD, a political scientist at the UC Riverside, about half of all Asian-American income goes to the top 20 percent of Asian-American earners. The bottom 40 percent of Asian-American earners, meanwhile, take home just 13 percent of the income pot.

"The Asian-American community has both of these sides: rich and poor," Ramakrishnan said. "There is some significant class advantage in the Asian-American community, but at the same time, in those communities where there is poverty, the aggregate numbers mask the disparities."

"People coming from the bottom fifth, or even the bottom forty percent, their lives are very different from what the top 20 percent looks," he said.

Chen grew up in a family at the bottom of the economic ladder. Since her father's arrival from China in the 1980's, he has worked as a cook at a Chinese restaurant. It was on that single income that the family paid below market rent for the tight two-bedroom apartment where Chen, her two older sisters, her mother and father all lived.

"I didn't realized how little we really earned until recently, when I had to pay for college, and apply for financial aid; I realized that we are not that well off at all," Chen said. "I would say that we're financially struggling."

Image: ARosa Chen stands in Chinatown where she gives historical tours with the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Rosa Chen, 19, grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of three daughters of immigrants. Her father is a restaurant cook and her mother does not work because of a disability. “I was surprised that people would see me as rich,” said Chen. Jim Seida / NBC News

Aggregate figures of Asian-American income do little to reflect Chen's childhood. The national figures are pulled upward by particular communities with high incomes. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, many South Asian immigrants came to the United States with high levels of education or to study in graduate programs and were able to enter into middle class professions that provided the basis for upward mobility. But others, including Cambodian, Laotian and other Southeast Asian communities, often migrated as refugees, arriving in the US with little in the way of financial resources or skills immediately transferrable to high paying jobs.

"Our analysis of Asian communities often stops at the broad data points," said Farah Ahmed, an analyst with the Center for American Progress who studies racial demographics. "Families who are newer immigrants, who don't speak English as a first language, or those in certain communities are more likely to face poverty. We talk about data in an aggregated way and that misses many realities."

Chen says her reality is more complicated than it appears to many.

"I go to a private college and when people see Chinese people, they assume I have a lot of money going to this school and that fits with the stereotype that Chinese people are rich," she said.

Chen's family economic struggles stem not just from her father's low income, but also from living in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the country.

"It's a hard city to live in," said Chen, who is a volunteer with the Chinatown Community Development Center, a group advocating for low-income housing protections. "I've done a lot of work around affordable housing, to try to stop people with money from kicking people out of the city. For a lot of the low-income families who are here, it's hard to find somewhere to live."

Asian communities in America are concentrated in expensive urban hubs - one in three Asians live in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. When local costs of living are included in analyses of poverty rates, Asian poverty rises by over two percentage points, to more than 16 percent, while white poverty rates fall slightly to 10.4 percent.

Researchers also note that Asian households tend to include more people, which means that even families with larger incomes have to spread those dollars more thinly.

When class is evaluated in terms of wealth—savings and assets minus debts—rather than income, Asian-American status begins to fall. Asian families hold 70 cents to every white dollar of wealth, according to recent research by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That's one of the reasons that Asian elders are more likely than the general population to be poor.

"My parents don't have much in the way of retirement savings," Chen said. She and her sisters, she says, "want our parents to live with us and live a good life as they get older. We see it as our job to pay our parents back."

Image:Rosa Chen stands in Chinatown where she gives historical tours with the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Rosa Chen says she didn't realize the depth of her family's financial constraints until she applied for college and financial aid. "I realized that we are not that well off at all,” Chen said. “I would say that we’re financially struggling.” Jim Seida / NBC News

Chen is facing more immediate concerns about her family's economic wellbeing than her parents' old age. The owner of the building where she lives with her parents and one of her older sisters has been threatening recently to evict her family, Chen says. Evictions have been on the rise in her city, due to a California law that allows landlords to oust tenants in order to stop renting units and sell.

"My parents don't want to leave Chinatown, and if we have to leave this apartment, we'd have to leave the city because it's expensive here," Chen said. The family pays $680 for the apartment, about a quarter of the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco Bay area. "They are really worried about the stability of their lives in San Francisco."

In many ways, Chen says the hidden poverty data among Asian Americans only confirms what she saw and heard around her growing up.

"There's this stereotype about Asians being rich," she said. "These stereotypes are shocking and interesting—how people perceive who you are, and their stereotypes about social class."

This story is part of a series: "Class In America: Who Do You Think You Are?" Read the series here.