Asian Americans are doing fine economically, government statistics indicate. Asian American income is on par with or better than the income of white Americans and, and a fair share of government contract dollars go to Asian-owned businesses.
But that data masks dramatic disparities in the economic well being of Asian Americans that divides sharply by country of origin and the wealth and education of the first generation of immigrants.
When the statistice are disaggregated by ethnic Asian groups, a different picture emerges. Japanese and Indian immigrant families tend to be far more prosperous than Vietnamese, Cambodian or even some Chinese-American communities. And these wide differences skew the government data on “Asians.”
“Asians are the most diverse racial group in the U.S. We have the most inequality compared to all the other races,” said Marlene Kim, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. “We have a lump at the top and a lump at the bottom. And at the top people from East Asia, such as Japan plus India: They are doctors, dentists, engineers (and) scientists.”
The income of the wealthier group bring the average per capita among Asian Americans in Massachusetts to about $42,000 a year — just behind whites — according to the U.S. Census.
But that means there are many Asians struggling below that average, said Kim, particularly Southeast Asians whose parents or grandparents came here from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos as refugees fleeing war and persecution — often with little to no money or education.
Those disadvantages have followed them here as many have become owners of struggling family-run businesses. But without accurate government data showing this reality, these businesses often don’t see any government resources to help them.
“People think all Asians are the same (but) they come from different countries with different levels of wealth and therefore have different levels of opportunity in the U.S.,” she said. “That’s important to remember, because you’re seeing these Asian businesses really need help. They’re not doing well.”
On a recent Tuesday at a small seafood store in Lowell, 21-year-old Kennis Yin-Mor manned the cash register and weighed a plastic bag full of live crabs. The shop belongs to his parents, who are part of Lowell’s sizeable Cambodian-American community. Yin-Mor remembered high-school friends assumed he was wealthy just because his family ran a business.
“They thought my people are Asian (and) you have a business, then you must have a lot of money,” he said. “I was like, ‘No, it doesn’t mean that. It doesn’t mean anything whatsoever.’”
His mother, Chantha Soun, said the business allows the family to survive.
“We don’t have a lot of money (to be) putting aside… It’s just like whatever we make, we support a family,” she said. “It’s not that easy. I’m not a big company store.”
Many Vietnamese-owned businesses in Massachusetts have also struggled. Among this ethnic Asian group, business owners reported average annual revenues of $526,000 — 20% of what white-owned businesses grossed and about one-third of the average sales for a Black-owned businesses in the state.
That’s according to the most recent U.S. Census survey of business owners in 2017, which didn’t count businesses that have no employees. The survey also doesn’t have a separate category for Cambodian entrepreneurs. That means businesses like Soun’s seafood store aren’t even measured in the data and factored into policy.
Soun tried to get a pandemic loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program — or PPP — but was rejected because she has no employees, only family members working.
“I don’t know who to pay to run the payroll,” she said. “In the long term, when my business picks up and the pandemic is over, I’m going to have payroll (but) right now we’re juggling.”
During the pandemic Soun said her business revenue dropped 70 percent as she cut back from being open for nine hours a day to five and limited the number of customers inside.
Her son, Kennis, also works for the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, advising dozens of small businesses in Lowell. He said many businesses tried applying for PPP funds online but gave up in frustration because of language barriers.
“I’ve seen an application, and I don’t see any language like, ‘You can call this person and they can help you fill it (out),’” he said. “If they have something like that, a lot of people would get the help. But the thing is, I have not seen that at all.”
The federal Small Business Administration issues documents in Khmer and six other Asian languages but the applications must be filled out in English. The agency also did not track the race and ethnicity of business owners who actually got loans during the pandemic.
Angie Liou, who heads the Asian Community Development Corporation in Boston, called the government’s failure to track and help Asian-owned small businesses a form of racism.
“The lack of collection of data, lack of culturally and language-competent resources for our communities, those all contribute to a system that that is racist against our communities,” she said.
The implication is that the needs of the specific Asian groups who are struggling to improve their businesses, their housing and education remain unnoticed and unmet, added Liou.
A study commissioned by the City of Boston — that analyzed more than $2.2 billion of contracts awarded over five years — found no disparities for Asian-owned companies doing business with the city. But that conclusion hid an important fact: Just two companies won 75 percent of the city’s contracting dollars that went to Asian-owned businesses.
“The big report come out (and) said ‘Asians are doing well.’ But if you really look into it, it’s like one or two vendors,” said Paul Watanabe, a member of the former mayor’s racial disparities task force and director of UMass-Boston’s Institute for Asian American Studies. “That doesn’t mean the Asian-American community is well served. It means that one particular vendor happened to be well served and happen to be Asian-American.”
Watanabe stressed the importance of small businesses in many Asian-American communities, and how these businesses are closely tied to a history of discrimination, to the experience of always being seen as a foreigner.
“There’s a reason why Asian-Americans, many of them, choose to have small businesses like nail salons and floor sanding,” he said. “If you’re an immigrant coming here in the United States and find it difficult to break into the regular economy and work for somebody else on a fair basis and be treated properly, you do what many people do, which is you try to create your own business and work for yourself.”
The wave of violent attacks on Asian-Americans — seen in viral videos — is focusing more political attention on this minority group. Experts like Watanabe see it as one silver lining and are demanding that policymakers stop looking at Asians as a successful monolith and instead begin to understand the deep disparities among Asian communites.