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Report: Asian Americans have highest language assistance needs, some have higher rates of poverty

Significant disparities reveal child poverty rates among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were almost double that of Asian American children.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) are among the fastest growing population groups in the United States, according to the 2020 Census. The largest number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders live in California.

A new national report released in June by AAPI Data, a publisher of demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, detailed stark contrasts between AANHPI population groups when it comes to language proficiency, education, poverty rates and housing in the U.S. Despite this, many public and private agencies continue to group AANHPI groups into one super-category, neglecting to acknowledge differences in cultural traditions and histories. 

Poverty rate

The report found the poverty rate for Asian Americans is tied with non-Hispanic Whites and the poverty rate for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is below that of Hispanics and Latinos. However, AAPI Data notes that poverty rates among different age groups reveal significant poverty disparities. 

Poverty rates for Asian seniors were higher than both Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, as well as White seniors. Stephanie Nguyen, the executive director of Asian Resources Inc. (ARI) in South Sacramento, saw this herself when the nonprofit hosted culturally appropriate food distributions. 

"When we did our food distributions for the community we serve, we had a lot of families line up at 5 o'clock in the morning. We didn't start until 8 o'clock," Nguyen said. 

Only 8.6% of Asians overall currently receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a statistic that didn't surprise Nguyen. 

"I've heard folks say if they take advantage of any of the resources that are available, especially if they were sponsored by a family to come over here, that they were afraid this would impact their sponsor and they would be sent back to their country," Nguyen said. 

According to AAPI Data, the child poverty rates for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were also almost double that of Asian American children. 

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Language proficiency 

The report also outlined language proficiency. Asian Americans have the highest level of language assistance needs. 32% of Asian Americans are considered limited English proficient (LEP), which refers to those who speak English "less than very well." To compare, 29% of Latinos and 12% of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders fall in that category. 

In addition, in nearly 17% of Asian households, there are no members 14 years or older who can speak English "very well." AAPI Data said this creates challenges for parents who are trying to engage with their children's schools and also creates potential intergenerational conflict between parents and their children. 

That's why ARI has been providing ESL classes to help people learn English as a second language, as well as other translation services. 

"We don't want these children, young adults to have that burden of being able to translate and interpret documentation for their parents. It's very stressful. It's stressful as a kid. It's stressful as an adult," Nguyen said. 

Nguyen said that language barriers also have a direct impact on one's education. 

"These young children are often left trying to figure out how to navigate their education on their own too, which leads to why you see many South Asians and Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders struggle in the education system as well," she said. 

Educational attainment

Under education, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders face the greatest barriers to college enrollment at a four-year level and higher. The report also mentioned that several Southeast Asian refugee populations such as Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian and Lao also face challenges at a significantly higher rate. Lowest educational attainment rates were found among groups with refugee experiences, which could interfere with learning opportunities.

"Many times these children are the first to go to college and that makes it even more difficult to figure out how to get through college," Nguyen said. "And when your family struggles and you're not able to jump in and help out, many times you're forced to stop going to school and go to work and help with the family expenses."

To read the full report, click HERE


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