Spotlight on Asian American and Pacific Islander Poverty: A Demographic Profile

With the recent attention to Asians in the United States as a relatively economically successful population (e.g., the recently released The Rise of Asian Americans, Pew Research Center, 2012), it is easy to overlook the nearly two million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs collectively—AAs for the category of Asian Americans and NHPIs for the subcategory of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders) who live in poverty. This report is an attempt to focus attention on people in need and to broaden the conversation about what it means to be AAPI in America.
Part I — Overview of AAPI Poverty
Population Growth/Nativity
  • AAPI poor are one of the fastest growing poverty populations in the wake of the Recession. From 2007 to 2011, the number of AAPI poor increased by more than half a million, representing an increase of 38% (37% increase for AAs in poverty and a 60% increase for NHOPIs in poverty). The general poverty population grew by 27%. The only other racial/ ethnic group with a larger percentage increase was Hispanic, with a 42% increase. 
  • Dramatic increases in AAPI poverty have not been reflected in the poverty rate. Despite an increase of over 50% in the number of AAPIs living in poverty from 2000, the AAPI poverty rate has changed little from 2000 (12.8% in 2000, 13.1% in 2011). Large increases in the numbers of AAPI poor have been accompanied by large increases in the overall AAPI population base, including large numbers of highly skilled, highly educated immigrants.
  • The AAPI poverty population is increasingly native born. Almost 60% of the net increase in AAPI poverty was in the native born segment of the population. The proportion of native born poverty is higher for NHPIs than for AAs; however, for both populations, the rate of increase and the net numeric increase was higher for native born poor than for immigrant poor.
  • This is in contrast to the AAPI non-poor population—particularly for AA non-poor—where immigration accounts for the majority of net population growth.

  • The ethnic composition of AAPI poverty is diverse. The US Census shows significant numbers of poor people from over two dozen AAPI sub-populations.
  • The ethnic mix of the AAPI poverty population changed only slightly from 2000. Measured against the entire AAPI poverty population, no single sub-population’s share increased or decreased more than 2%.

National-Level Geographic Distribution and Political Representation


  • From 2000 to 2010, AAPI poverty has increased in every region of the country except for NHPIs in the Northeast, with some of the largest increases in the South. In the South, AA poverty populations grew by over 50% and NHPIs by over 100%.
  • AAPI poor are concentrated in Congressional Districts in the West and in New York. Of the 25 Congressional Districts (per the 111th Congress) with the highest numbers of AA poor, 21 are in California or New York. The Congressional Districts with the most poor NHPIs are in Hawaii (both districts), Utah (2 of the 3 Utah districts), California and Washington.
  • AAPI poor are concentrated in the Western United States. Over 40% of all poor AAs and over 75% of all poor NHPIs are in the Western Region (regions as defined by the US Census), with the highest populations in the Pacific subregion (consists of California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and Alaska). AAs have a secondary concentration in the Northeast (almost 25% of the AA poor population). NHPIs have a secondary concentration in the South (over 15% of the NHPI poor population).

Other Demographic Traits
  • Age Profile: Compared to the age profile of the general poverty population, the AA poor population is older with higher rates of senior poverty while the NHPI poor population is younger, with higher rates of children in poverty;
  • Household Formation: Correlated with their respective age profiles, the AA poor population has a lower rate of family household formation and households with fewer children per household, while the NHPI population has a higher rate of family household formation with more children per household;
  • Employment: Poor AAPIs, with slight variation by ethnicity and by household type, generally have slightly higher rates of unemployment and underemployment than the general poverty population;
  • Language: AAPIs, particularly AAs, have high rates of households where a language other than English is spoken at home and high rates of people who speak English “less than very well.”


Part II — A Metropolitan Analysis of the Geography of AAPI Poverty

Metro-Level Concentration
  • Poor AAPIs are disproportionately concentrated in metro areas with the highest housing costs. Almost 50% of all poor AAPIs (47% for poor AAs, 40% for poor NHPIs) live in the 20 most expensive real estate markets in the country. 17% of the general poverty population lives in the 20 most expensive housing markets.
  • AAPIs in poverty are more concentrated in a limited number of metropolitan areas than any other racial/ethnic poverty population. The top 10 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in terms of AA poor population contain over 50% of the entire population of AA poor. The top 10 largest MSAs in terms of NHPI poor population contain over 55% of all NHPI poor. By comparison, the top 10 largest populations in terms of overall poor population contain only 25% of the nation’s poor population.

Neighborhood-Level Concentration
  • Relative to each ethnic group’s respective national concentrations, AAPI poor are more concentrated at the neighborhood level than almost any other racial/ethnic group. Relative to each ethnic groups’ national populations -- i.e., as a measure of skewness against a projected normal distribution, poor NHPIs are more concentrated at a neighborhood level than any racial/ethnic group. By the same measure, poor AAs are relatively concentrated at a neighborhood level greater than all other ethnic groups except American Indians and Alaska Natives and NHPIs.
  • AAPI poor tend to live in mixed-race/multi-cultural neighborhoods. While most poor people (over 55%) live in majority non-Hispanic White neighborhoods, most AAPI poor (57% for AAs, 62% for NHPIs) live in “majority minority” neighborhoods where a minority group — or a mix of minority groups — compose more than 50% of the population. For AAs living in these neighborhoods, more than half (over 54%) live in neighborhoods where no single racial/ethnic group is more than 50% of the population. They are next most likely to live in a majority AA neighborhood, followed closely by a Hispanic majority neighborhood. Most poor NHPIs living in a majority minority neighborhood live in a no-majority neighborhood (65%), followed by a Hispanic majority neighborhood, followed by an AA majority neighborhood.

Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) Types
  • In some MSAs, poor AAPIs are clustered near other AAPIs. Of the 153 MSAs with more than 1,000 poor AAPIs, approximately 58% of all poor AAs live in MSAs where poor AAs tend to be clustered around other AAs. Approximately 34% of all poor NHPIs live in MSAs where NHPIs tend to be clustered around other NHPIs. By size of AAPI poverty population, the largest MSAs in this category are New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Thirty five MSAs have this characteristic (26 for AAs, 9 for NHPIs) and represent a large proportion of the AAPI poor population.
  • Poor AAPIs also have secondary clustering around other poor people. Approximately 25% of all poor AAs live in MSAs where poor AAs tend to be clustered around other poor people (there is some overlap with the MSA type described directly above) and approximately 33% of all NHPIs live in MSAs where poor NHPIs are clustered around other poor people (some overlap with the high concentration NHPI clustering described above). By AAPI poverty, the largest MSAs in this category are Philadelphia and Detroit. There are a larger number of MSAs in this category (67 for AAs, 58 for NHPIs) but the total number of poor AAPIs in these MSAs is smaller than those in the above category.
  • In some MSAs, poor AAPIs show diffuse residential patterns. Approximately 26% of all poor AAs and 32% of all poor NHPIs live in MSAs where fewer poor AAPIs live in identifiable clusters. For AAs, the majority of this population is in the South. For NHPIs, 49% of this population is in California with the next largest concentration (13%) in Utah. By AAPI poverty, the largest MSAs in this category are Houston, Dallas, Washington DC and Atlanta. There are the most MSAs in this category (74 for AAs, 92 for NHPIs), but the total number of poor AAPIs in this MSA type is less than the first category.

  • Growing Need: There is a growing need for attention and resources to serve AAPI poor.
  • Geographic Approach: Neighborhood-based AND regional approaches are both legitimate strategies to serve the AAPI poor.
  • Diversity: A multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial approach is important.
  • Housing Costs: Lowering housing costs is particularly important for poor AAPIs.
  • Age Profile: Seniors and youth are both high need segments of the AAPI population, depending partially upon the specific AAPI ethnic group.
  • High Concentrations: High concentrations of poor AAPIs in a limited number of geographies, meaning that a large proportion of the population can be served with focused resources.
  • Local Empowerment, Local Solutions: Because the AAPI poverty population is diverse in so many different ways (diversity of ethnicities, languages, cultures, family structure, how and when a family/ancestors came to this country, different residential patterns in different regions of the country), there are no “one size fits all” solutions. Local communities know best how to define and implement their own solutions and should be empowered and resourced to do so.
  • Network Building: Networks should be supported in a way in which local institutions are respected, while also creating economies of scale to share information, and strengthen joint advocacy and education of policymakers.
  • Capacity Building: Capacity building is critical to building new, local, community-based infrastructure that will serve as the foundation for stronger regional and national institutions.