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Number of poor Asian Americans in N.Y.C. area up 15 percent in 10 years, study says

The growth has spurred migration to the suburbs, which experts fear do not have enough resources to support the vulnerable population.
Image: People cross a street in New York's Chinatown on March 21, 2021.
People cross a street in New York's Chinatown on March 21.John Smith / VIEWpress - Corbis via Getty Images

The number of Asian Americans living in poverty in metropolitan New York City rose by 15 percent over the past decade, a new report found, including a pronounced increase in the suburbs. The trends illustrate the importance of robust policies and programs for the growing low-income population, both in cities and outside metro areas, experts said.  

“It’s not just having translated services,” said Howard Shih, the director of research and policy at the Asian American Federation, a nonprofit social services organization, which released the report last week. “You have to do outreach to communities. You have to build a level of trust or work with organizations that have built a level of trust in those communities to help really deliver services to those people.”

The report examined data about the Asian American community in New York City and the surrounding areas, including parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Hudson Valley. From 2010 to 2019, the number of Asian Americans living in poverty increased from 252,000 to almost 290,000, the report says. While the city continues to have the largest concentration of poor Asian Americans, its share in the area declined from 76 percent to 73 percent. Asian American poverty surged the most in the Hudson Valley region, where the total Asian American population grew by 16 percent but the number of low-income Asian Americans increased by 86 percent. 

“As recent as a decade ago when I looked at the data, it seemed fairly entrenched that Asian poverty would continue to be centered around New York City, because the infrastructure to support people is there,” Shih said. “We have lots of very strong member agencies that provide a lot of social services and a lot of access to jobs.” 

He said that the data appears to show that new low-income immigrants have continued to settle into the city, in part because of the proximity to resources, cultural social networks and infrastructure, and that those who have lived in the U.S. longer are increasingly moving out to the suburbs in search of better housing and educational opportunities for their children. At the same time, Asian Americans with higher incomes are increasingly moving into the city, Shih said. 

“The challenge there is that New York City has some fairly strong language access laws that require city agencies to provide translated materials in 12 languages. That doesn’t exist in the suburban areas,” Shih said. “The goal of our report is to sort raise the flag and start having conversations with suburban leaders. ... The infrastructure in the suburbs really needs to be built up in response to the growing populations.” 

The report also breaks down the demographics of poor Asian Americans. Mongolians, Burmese, Bangladeshis and Cambodians are among the ethnic groups with the highest rates of poverty. Some of the most common industries for low-income Asian Americans are restaurant and food services, taxi and limousine services, and nail salons and other personal care services. 

Poor women had a lower rate of participation in the labor force than men, which Shih said is likely to be due to a combination of factors, including a lack of access to affordable child care and a lack of language or work skills necessary to seek employment. 

Asian American seniors are also a particularly vulnerable population. The number living in poverty grew by 67 percent, from about 30,000 in 2010 to more than 50,000 in 2019. That was driven largely by the growth of the Asian American senior population overall, Shih said, because many of the immigrants who arrived in the U.S. after the 1965 immigration reforms are aging into senior status. 

The report also highlights the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Many indirect measures of Asian American poverty foreshadow a significant increase in official poverty rates among Asian Americans in the New York metro area due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” it says. 

The report points out that the number of unemployment benefit applications among Asian American New Yorkers increased by more than 6,000 percent from February to June 2020, as shown in state and federal unemployment data. More than a year later, Asian American employment in New York has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

“In the past decade, in the run-up to Covid, when the economy was chugging along, Asian Americans typically had unemployment rates that were lower than the general population,” Shih said. “So we’re seeing that the Asian community hasn’t really recovered.” 

The increased awareness of racism toward Asian Americans during the pandemic led New York City to direct more resources toward the community, which he said could be seen as “down payments on many years of underfunding of Asian American social services.” A 2015 report on city government social service contract data revealed that about 1.4 percent of contracts went to programs to serve Asian New Yorkers. With added financial stress on low-income Asian Americans caused by the pandemic, Shih said, the city needs to pick up the slack. 

“We’re still not where we really need to be in order to provide sufficient services to meet all the demand that is out there,” he said.