Asian American seniors are often left out of the national conversation on poverty
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the collective identity and diversity of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Over the next month, Urban researchers explore data that shed light on challenges faced by distinct AAPI groups and how these groups strengthen their communities.
Statistics on Asian Americans often present a population with high education levels, earning potential, and net worth, painting a picture of a young, educated, middle class. These numbers obscure a growing population of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander seniors, many of whom lack the financial resources of their younger counterparts. As a growing demographic with a rising poverty rate, Asian American seniors are being left behind in the narrative of a financially strong Asian American community.
The Asian American elderly population is a fast-growing demographic. In 2014, the older Asian population was 1.9 million, and it is projected to grow to 8.5 million by 2060. Estimates project the older Asian population to make up 9 percent of the older population by 2060, compared with 4 percent in 2014.
The elderly Asian population is faring worse economically compared with the general older American population. The chart below shows poverty rates for seniors ages 65 and older in 2015, when the poverty rate for Asians ages 65 and older was 12.7 percent, and the rate for all older Americans was 9 percent.
Poverty rates range significantly among different Asian subgroups. For example, in 2015, 23.3 percent of Cambodian American seniors 65 and older lived below the federal poverty level compared with 7.1 percent of Filipino seniors. Vietnamese, Hmong, and Indonesian Americans 65 and older have a poverty rate of 17.9 percent. Aggregated data often obscure higher poverty rates for elderly people who immigrated more recently and lack savings and a social safety net, compared with Asian Americans whose ancestors immigrated in the late 1800s.
Along with a growing senior population, the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community also faces a growing poor senior population. Between 2009 and 2014, the poverty rate increased 40 percent for Asian American seniors and 191 percent for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander seniors.
Many social and economic barriers stand in the way of addressing elderly poverty. Access to affordable senior housing is often a large factor in AANHPI seniors’ financial security. Asian American seniors are likely to move to Asian American cultural hubs for social engagement and community support. These hubs are often in cities with expensive housing prices. Nearly half of poor Asian Americans live in the 20 most-expensive real estate markets, including Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego. Rising rental costs make it increasingly difficult for seniors on a fixed income to age in place, leading to health problems, social isolation, and economic instability.
New York City offers a case study in the economic and social issues facing cities with a growing Asian American senior population. The older immigrant population, including Korean and Chinese Americans, is growing exponentially compared with native-born seniors. Asian American senior citizens in New York City face larger economic barriers and higher costs of living. Approximately 24 percent of Asian seniors live in poverty compared with 18 percent of all elderly New Yorkers.
Many Asian American seniors have limited access to the social safety net despite growing poverty rates. Asian American seniors, especially foreign-born seniors, are likely to receive much less Social Security benefits because they tend to earn less and over fewer years during their working years in the United States. While 23 percent of the older population have no Social Security income, 39 percent of Chinese American seniors and 35 percent of Korean seniors in New York City have no Social Security income.
Social isolation, inadequate community outreach, and limited English proficiency play a large role in keeping Asian American seniors from accessing social services. In New York City, 94 percent of Korean American seniors and 92 percent of Chinese American seniors speak English less than very well. Although the city offers programs in many languages, limited English proficiency decreases the likelihood that Asian American seniors will apply for financial services. Without disaggregated data, it is difficult to understand the true limits Asian American seniors face when engaging with social services.
Despite being the fastest-growing population in the United States, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are often overlooked or reported as a monolith in research on racial and ethnic disparities. Representation matters—and that’s especially true in policy research, where “invisibility is an unnatural disaster” (Mitsuye Yamada). Aggregate statistics obscure communities’ contributions and needs, so data disaggregated by ethnic origin are needed to change stereotypical narratives around AAPIs in every area of policy research.
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