The Economic Reality of Asian Americans, Including Intragroup Differences

May is Asian Pacific American Month, a time to celebrate and pay tribute to the contributions and influences of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States and are predicted to become the nation’s largest immigrant group in the next few decades. As the population of Asian Americans continues to grow swiftly, monolithic ideas and stereotypes painted over the group must be critically examined and broken down. Specifically, the false belief that all Asian Americans are well off and have achieved higher socio-economic status is dangerous because it ignores the wide inequalities distributed within the group.

The reality of the socio-economic status of Asian Americans is one of immense disparities in education, income, wealth and employment, as shown by our recently released Asian American Racial Wealth Snapshot. Demystifying blanket assumptions regarding the economic status of Asian Americans is key in understanding the large disparities that live within the group, and can help reduce intra-group inequalities. 

Asian Americans as a whole tend to have higher incomes than other communities of color, yet there are wide disparities in this racial category that includes national ancestry from dozens of nations around the world. The household median income for Asian Americans in 2018 was $87,194 compared to the national median income of $63,179, but income among Asian Americans differs greatly when the data is disaggregated. Indian Asians were reported to have a median income of $100,000, while Burmese American’s median income was reported as $36,000. A study from Pew Research Center showed that in 2016, Asians in the top 10 percentile earned 10.7 times as much as those in the bottom 10%. 

In addition to income, wealth is also highly concentrated among Asian Americans, and still falls behind White American wealth. 2013 Consumer Finance Data showed that the median wealth for Asian Americans was $91,440, higher than the wealth of Blacks and Latinos, but still about $40,000 less than White American median wealth of $134,008. 

A different dataset provided from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) reported that Asian American’s median assets from 2010 to 2013 was $287,306, compared to their White counterparts at $237,401. However, an analysis from the Center of American Progress (CAP) breaks down the reported accumulation of wealth, and reveals that this wealth is more greatly concentrated  among the top 50% of Asian American earners than compared to other groups. The bottom half of Asian Americans in the income distribution have a reported wealth of only $40,503. This is less than half the wealth of White Americans in the bottom half of income distribution who have median assets of $91,924, respectively. 

One factor to understanding the gaps in income and wealth among Asian Americans is educational attainment. In 2017, 53% of Asian Americans had achieved a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the 33.4% national average. However, similar to income and wealth, educational attainment is not equal across all Asian Americans. 75% of Taiwanese Americans and 74% Asian Indians have at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 11% of Bhutanese Americans. 

As a collective group, Asian Americans are not part of the racial wealth divide like other communities of color, but when we divide the group by national origin, nearly half of them do face those same levels of economic disparity. As the Asian American demographic continues to grow rapidly, and continues to gain more attention as the nation’s fastest growing major racial category, it is important to address the racial wealth divide and intragroup inequalities among Asian Americans.

Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is NCRC’s Chief of Race, Wealth & Community.

Sally Sim is an NCRC Race, Wealth & Community intern.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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