The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 10, 2012

"Model minority" myth hides the economic realities of many Asian Americans

May 10, 2012

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, so it is a good time to get rid of the “model minority” stereotype and explore the diversity within this group. The median education level of Asian Americans is higher than that of non-Asian Americans and their unemployment rates are lower, on average, as well, contributing to the “model minority” label. But these general statistics mask large differences in the economic situation of Asians in the United States.

Labor market positions vary greatly among different Asian subgroups, as detailed in a recent Monthly Labor Review article, which uses data from 2008 through 2010. For example, three-quarters of Asian Indians have at least a bachelor’s degree and over two-thirds are in management or professional jobs. But Vietnamese are less well positioned. One-fifth of them have less than a high school diploma and similar numbers are in low-paying personal care and service jobs.  And while unemployment rates for all Asian groups are lower than rates for non-Asians, once they lose their jobs, Chinese and Filipino Americans are about 25 percent more likely to be unemployed for at least six months than other Asian and non-Asian groups.

Employed People by Occupation, Asian Indians and Vietnamese, averages for the combined years 2008-2010

Source: Monthly Labor Review, November 2011

Even the most successful Asian Americans face barriers to upward mobility in corporate America.  A Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) study finds that Asians are far less likely to work their way up to CEO and board positions in private corporations. Although they are 6 percent of the population and 6.5 percent of the labor force, Asians hold only 2.4 percent of the total number of board seats in Fortune 500 companies and only 18 Asian Pacific Americans hold the title of Chairman, President, CEO or Vice Chair.

The economic position of Asian children also varies substantially across the country. The Asian child poverty rate varies among states with a sizeable Asian population—rising above the national Asian child poverty rate of 10.5 percent in Minnesota and New York, for example, while falling below the national rate in Illinois and Virginia, according to the Urban Institute’s Children of Immigrants Data Tool.  Some of these differences are related to the different concentrations of Asian subgroups, primarily more recent immigrants. In other cases, the differences are related to economic opportunity.

So while Asian Americans on average fare well on measures of education and employment, a closer look reveals great diversity by ethnicity, immigration status, and state—as well as barriers to economic success. The “model minority” stereotype papers over these differences and often hides the challenges many Asians still face.

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