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Asians in California don't believe hard work and determination alone equal success

A joint survey showed that roughly 55 percent of AAPI surveyed in California disagree with the narrative of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.”
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Elderly people sit on a bench in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco on June 19, 2018.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Asian Americans in California aren’t so confident that hard work and determination alone guarantee success for most people.

The Public Religion Research Institute and AAPI Data released a joint survey this week, examining the working lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in California, the state with the racial group’s largest population. The study revealed that a majority of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders disagree with the narrative of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” or that hard work alone is sufficient to achieve success.

Janelle Wong, a researcher at AAPI Data, told NBC News that the findings are significant as the group is often propped up by anti-civil rights activists to promote the idea that communities of color have equal opportunities to make it in the U.S.

“I think it is really important that AAPIs … demonstrate an understanding that societal factors like racial discrimination pose a significant barrier to the idea that hard work and determination alone guarantee success, especially for those working and struggling with poverty,” Wong said. “This understanding seems to increase as AAPIs spend more time in the U.S. and has been more fully recognized by the second-generation.”

Researchers surveyed more than 2,684 Asian American and Pacific Islander adults across California in seven different languages, targeting the eight largest Asian national origin groups and Pacific Islanders. They found that while roughly 55 percent of AAPI surveyed disagree with the bootstrap narrative, that number jumps to 64 percent when examining Asian American and Pacific Islander Californians who are working and struggling with poverty, the study shows. Researchers defined “working and struggling with poverty” as those who are currently employed either full or part time, or are unemployed but continue to seek employment, and live in households that have an adjusted income that’s 250 percent or less than the U.S. Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Researchers also revealed a significant portion of the racial group is under resourced. Roughly a quarter of AAPI in California are working and struggling with poverty, with certain communities experiencing particularly high rates. The populations with the highest proportions of poverty are the Hmong community at 44 percent and the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community at 36 percent.

More than 80 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders reported experiencing at least one of 10 possible economic hardships like being able to pay a bill or having to use food stamps. When looking at Hmongs, Cambodians and Vietnamese in the United States, 70 percent or more experienced economic hardship. Other ethnic groups were significantly less likely to report experiencing at least one economic hardship, such as the Japanese at 55 percent, Chinese at 53 percent, and Koreans at 52 percent.

Wong explained that disparities between groups can be chalked up to U.S. immigration policies, war and colonialism. Some groups, including Indians, Chinese and Koreans have in part benefited from immigration policies that selectively recruited highly educated workers, Wong points out. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 not only established family-based immigration, it also made high-skilled immigrants a priority. In the 1990s, the U.S. further escalated efforts to recruit high-skilled Asian immigrants, spurred by legislation that shifted more toward admitting immigrants based on skills and education.

In contrast, she said that those from the Southeast Asian communities have been shaped by U.S.-led wars in countries like Vietnam and Laos, while Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities continue to be affected by American colonial expansion in the Pacific.

“We really can't understand the economic trajectories of these populations without attending to these global forces,” Wong said.

The report does underscore, however, that no AAPI group is “exempt from the struggles facing Californians.” Because of the relatively high populations of Chinese and Filipinos in the state, those communities together make up the majority of Asian American and Pacific Islander Californians who are working and struggling with poverty.

“The findings really challenge the traditional narrative, including in AAPI communities, that to understand economic inequality among AAPIs, we only need to focus on group differences between Southeast Asians, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and other AAPI groups,” Wong said.

Though California remains a minority-majority state, the survey also showed that AAPI in the state are more likely to report dealing with racial discrimination than the general California population, with experiences of racial discrimination highest among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders at 29 percent and Indians at 24 percent. Wong noted that “racial discrimination is a powerful force in society, and it is not eliminated by racial diversity alone.”

“It takes on new forms and is often triggered by demographic change,” she said.

Regardless of the numerous challenges AAPI in the state face, the majority, 62 percent, continue to believe in the American dream, as defined as “if you work hard, you will get ahead.” The group is relatively more hopeful, compared to overall Californians, 47 percent of whom believe the American dream still holds true today. The report points out that “immigrant optimism” is likely at play as AAPI Californians who are born outside the U.S. are more likely than native-born Americans to believe in the American dream.

Though underserved Asian American groups have not been thoroughly researched, Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data, said that it’s important to disaggregate data, or break it down, and take a more precise look at the racial group as averages don’t tell the full story.

“When we look only at averages, and when we look at surveys of AAPIs that are only conducted in English, we have a misleading picture of the kinds of disadvantages that many AAPIs face,” Ramakrishnan said. “By having this detailed information, not only by ethnicity, but also showing differences by geography and nativity, policy makers and funders alike can target their investments and policies where they are most needed, and where they can have most impact.”

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