Poor and Asian


Image Credit: nateOne

I was in line at Target one day last spring, checking the time on my phone because I knew I had cut it close by trying to squeeze in the errand on my way to picking the kids up from school. It should have been a quick stop to buy a few things, but I had been in line for a long time. In front of me, an Asian woman who looked to be in her 30s with a toddler son was paying for her stuff. She wasn’t buying a lot, so why was it taking so long? I watched her, with her head down as she handed over something to the cashier. My eyes zoomed in on a logo: WIC.

She was on food stamps?

I would not have expected it. She looked clean-cut, respectably dressed — neither ostentatious nor in rags — her hair was styled in an unassuming long bob… and she was Asian.

Everyone’s talking about SNAP and WIC after the House Republicans voted last week to cut billions of dollars from food stamp programs. But discussions of poverty, and its often related conditions of single motherhood and childhood nutrition, rarely focus on Asian Americans. Seeing that woman using her WIC vouchers at Target opened my eyes. It’s like one of those times you hear a new word and then, all of a sudden, you start hearing it everywhere. Not too long after that experience, we were at a government office applying for passports, when my eyes drifted to the WIC logo on a water bottle held by an Asian woman. I recalled overhearing snippets of Mandarin spoken by elderly Chinese Americans waiting in line while I was visiting a food bank for a work project.

There’s more  to poverty among Asian Americans than just my little anecdotes. Earlier this year, a study of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in California revealed some surprising statistics. Despite the common idea that Asians are the Model Minority, in California (home to the largest number of Asian Americans) there are many who are poor and Asian.

Here are some of the statistics of Asian poverty:
  • Asians have higher poverty rates than whites (10%  and 8%)
  • Asians have greater proportion of low-income  than whites(24% and 20%)
  • Asians have lower per capita income than whites ($29,841 and $42,052)

When it comes to families, especially single moms, the statistics are even more dire.

  • 16 % of Asian American families have three or more workers contributing to household income (compared to 10% of whites)
  • 53% of AAPI single mothers do not earn enough to cover their families basic needs

To see the full  2013 report A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in California visit the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice website.


  1. says

    Interesting and this is why I cringe when people say they do not have a prejudiced bone in their body. We all hold beliefs, many of which we are not aware.. We do not think of Pan Asians as recipients of any state programs. Thanks for reminding us of this.

  2. says

    I must have missed this when you first published this, but thanks for bringing this up. I too would have been surprised to see Asians using food stamps but to your point, poverty is there even if it’s not typically associated with Asians.

  3. says

    There are different ways of interpreting poor. But being on food stamps (we don’t have food stamps in Canada) is poor.

    I’m certain some commenters have parents like mine: poor raised 6 children, but paid off their house but their subsist on very low, retirement income, which my father was cook, hence no company benefits. Their life is incredibly simple…no travel, etc. Their children are around to help when needed.

    The biggest difference is Canada’s public health insurance system does make it possible for my father who is dying from cancer to be given immediate care with hardly any cost to him.

    • says

      Yes, there are many different definitions of poor, and I know many people who live in the fashion you just described. Whatever circumstances that mother was in, I’m sure by her demeanor that she would not want to be using assistance if there were any other way. And don’t even get me started about health care. O Canada! Thanks for stopping by, Jean.

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