A landmark survey released today by PRRI and AAPI Data finds almost a quarter (23%) of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in California are working and struggling with poverty. The survey finds a state of “two Californias” among AAPIs—one where some AAPI workers report a great deal of financial stability and another where AAPI workers report significant financial insecurity and struggle.
This survey is the first to provide a comprehensive portrait of the working lives and struggles of AAPI California residents, including their economic concerns and aspirations, as well as their certainty in—and doubts about—the American Dream. The survey also provides a close examination of the struggles of some AAPI ethnic groups to cover basic housing and healthcare expenses.
No AAPI group is exempt from the struggles facing Californians
Almost one-third (31%) of all Californians are working and struggling with poverty. In comparison, nearly one in four (23%) AAPIs in California are working but struggling with poverty, 37% are working but not struggling with poverty, and 40% are retired, students, or otherwise not working. Among AAPI workers in California, 38% are struggling with poverty, while 62% are not.
There are significant differences among AAPI ethnic groups:
- Hmong (44%) and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (36%) Californians have the highest proportions of their populations who are working and struggling with poverty.
- One in five or more Cambodian (26%), Vietnamese (26%), Chinese (23%), Filipino (22%), Japanese (22%), and Indian (20%) Californians are working and struggling with poverty, with Korean Americans (15%) least likely to be working and struggling with poverty.
- More than eight in ten (82%) Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders report that they experienced at least one of ten possible economic hardships, like being unable to pay a monthly bill or having to use food stamps, as have about seven in ten Hmong (76%), Cambodians (71%), and Vietnamese (70%).
“All AAPI groups have significant minorities of workers within their population who are struggling, including Chinese, Filipino, and Indian Americans,” notes Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor and Founding Director of AAPI Data. “Despite the dominant images of Silicon Valley riches and well-to-do health professionals, these relatively more economically stable AAPI groups nonetheless make up a majority of the millions of struggling AAPI Californian workers.”
The San Joaquin Valley (50%) and Inland Empire (37%) regions have the highest proportion of AAPIs who are working and struggling with poverty.
AAPI Californians somewhat optimistic about the American Dream and the California Dream, but question the “bootstrap narrative”
A majority of AAPI Californians (62%) still believe in the American Dream: that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. AAPI Californians born outside of the U.S. are more likely than those born in the U.S. to believe the American Dream still holds true (69% vs. 43%).
At the same time, 55% of AAPI Californians question the “bootstrap” narrative that “hard work and determination alone” guarantees success for most people. About two-thirds of AAPI Californians (64%) working and struggling with poverty, compared to a smaller majority (54%) of AAPI workers who are not struggling with poverty disagree with this bootstrap narrative.
“Recent AAPI immigrants come to California with an optimistic vision of achieving the American Dream,” notes PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “While they are still more optimistic than Californians overall, the longer they’re here, the more their real-life struggles and hardships erode this optimism and the sense that the American Dream is possible.”
Regarding the California Dream (the idea that Californians are more likely to experience the rewards of their efforts in the state than elsewhere in the country), AAPI Californians are somewhat more optimistic than Californians overall. A majority (55%) of all Californians, compared to only 39% of AAPI Californians, say the American Dream is harder to achieve in California.
AAPI Californians Face Economic Insecurity
Almost one in five AAPI Californians (18%) say that it would be either very difficult or nearly impossible to pay a $400 emergency expense. AAPI Californians are virtually as likely as all Californians (17%) to experience this level of economic insecurity.
These difficulties cut across all AAPI ethnic subgroups. One-third or more of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (37%), Cambodians (34%), and Hmong (33%) say it would be very difficult or nearly impossible to pay a $400 emergency expense. Nearly one in four Vietnamese (24%), one in five Filipino (19%) and Indian (19%), one in six Japanese (16%), and one in ten Chinese (12%) and Korean (10%) Californians also report that paying a $400 emergency expense would be very difficult or nearly impossible.
Almost one in five AAPI Californians say that they or someone in their household had to put off seeing their doctor or purchasing medication for financial reasons (19%), had difficulty paying their rent or mortgage (19%), or were not able to pay their monthly bill (17%).
Notably, more than eight in ten (82%) Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Californians report that they experienced at least one of ten possible economic hardships, such as being unable to pay a monthly bill or having to use food stamps, as have about seven in ten Hmong (76%), Cambodians (71%), and Vietnamese (70%) Californians.
Other Notable Findings
- Challenging Workplace Conditions: AAPI workers who are struggling with poverty are more likely than non-struggling workers to have been required to work overtime without being paid for it (25% vs. 16%), to be paid less than the minimum wage (20% vs. 5%), or to have had their wages withheld by their employer (14% vs. 5%). More than six in ten (63%) say that employers generally see people like them as replaceable.
- Workplace Organizing: AAPI Californians working and struggling with poverty recognize the value of organizing to safeguard their rights. Almost seven in ten (69%) AAPI Californians and 76% of AAPI workers struggling with poverty agree that it is important for workers to organize.
- Gig Economy Participation: More than one in ten (14%) AAPI Californians worked in the gig economy over the last year, including performing miscellaneous tasks or providing services for others, such as shopping, delivering household items, assisting with childcare, or driving for a ride-hailing app. AAPI workers struggling with poverty were almost twice as likely as those not struggling to participate in the gig economy (24% vs. 15%).
- Difficulty Finding Better Jobs Due to Distance: Among AAPI workers who are struggling with poverty, a majority (55%) say that most jobs are too far away from where they live, as do nearly half of AAPI workers who are not struggling with poverty (48%).
The AAPI California Workers Survey was jointly designed by PRRI and AAPI Data and was made possible by a generous grant from the James Irvine Foundation. Results of the survey are based on interviews conducted by telephone and online from July 6 to September 6, 2019 of 2,684 Asian American or Pacific Islander adults. Sampling was targeted towards the eight largest Asian national origin groups and Pacific Islanders that together account for 84% of the AAPI adult resident population (and 83% of the AAPI adult citizen population). The primary sampling strategy for 2,509 of the interviews was to interview individuals drawn from a random selection of respondents in a listed sample stratified by national origin. The additional 175 interviews were conducted among Californians who identify as AAPI in Ipsos’s KnowledgePanel.
The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points (including design effects) at the 95% level of confidence. In addition to sampling error, surveys may also be subject to error or bias due to question wording, context, and order effects.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.
About AAPI Data:
AAPI Data is a nationally recognized, nonpartisan research program that has published demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) since 2013.