November 7, 2018
A Tale of Two Communities Dispels Model Minority Myths
By Kristen Lewis and Sarah Burd-Sharps
This week, Urban Matters continues our ongoing occasional series drawn from “A Portrait of New York City 2018: Well-Being in the Five Boroughs and the Greater Metro Area,” a recent report by Measure of America, a project of the Social Science Research Council.
The comparative success of Asian Americans on earnings and educational indicators has given rise to the “model minority” myth, which proposes that, through hard work and studiousness, Asians across the board have achieved economic success.
One of the troublesome assumptions of this myth is that it overlooks the great diversity of circumstances and outcomes of Asian groups in the United States. Asians are not a monolithic group; the nearly 2.5 million Asian residents of the New York City metropolitan area are both native and foreign-born, immigrated to the United States recently or decades ago, and come from countries that are stable and prosperous as well as poorly governed and impoverished. These different journeys result in residents with very different capabilities and well-being outcomes. Stereotypes that paint them as one homogenous group can result in some getting lost in the numbers, left out of efforts to make sure every child reaches their full potential.
Two metro area communities illustrate the widely diverging circumstances. Superficially, the Brooklyn communities of Bensonhurst and Bath Beach have a lot in common with Southwest Middlesex County in New Jersey. Both have similar population sizes (115,000 in Southwest Middlesex and 188,000 in Bensonhurst) and are roughly 40 percent Asian and 45 percent White with the remainder of the population mainly Latino in the Bensonhurst area and Black in Southwest Middlesex. In both, roughly seven in 10 of the Asian residents are immigrants. Broad health outcomes in both are very good, with average life expectancies of 82.5 years in the Bensonhurst area and 83.9 years in Southwest Middlesex.
While demographically similar, however, these two communities’ financial numbers are worlds apart. The typical worker in Southwest Middlesex earns about $52,000 annually, well above the metro area median of roughly $39,000. In Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst and Bath Beach, median earnings are $27,000, a striking $25,000 difference. This gap in turn manifests itself in an array of other differences; Southwest Middlesex residents are nearly twice as likely to own their homes (64 percent as compared with 34 percent in Bensonhurst) and have lower rates of poverty (six percent vs. 20 percent) and child poverty (six percent vs. 28 percent). Zeroing in on the Asian populations in these two communities, the gap is even more pronounced. The overall earnings gap between Asians, $50,000, is double the actual earnings in Bensonhurst. For men, the Asian earnings gap is a whopping $70,000. While the earnings of Asian women in Southwest Middlesex are on par with the area’s median, Asian men earn nearly twice that— close to $100,000.
This pair of neighborhoods is a stark example of Asian diversity—both economic and geographic. Nearly 90 percent of Bensonhurst-area Asians trace their roots to China, while 70 percent of Middlesex Asians are of Indian background. Indians have the highest earnings of the eight most-populous Asian subgroups in the New York metro area, almost $53,000. Chinese residents land in the middle of the pack with earnings just under $35,500, while Bangladeshis are at the bottom.
The generalization that all Asian Americans are economically secure hurts communities like Bensonhurst and Bath Beach, as well as Chinese New Yorkers and other groups whose day-to-day realities are far from what Asian-wide data might suggest. And this goes beyond earnings; a recent study found that wealth inequality is much greater among Asians, many of whom have little to no assets to fall back on, than among Whites. The enormous economic diversity underneath the Asian average makes the disaggregation of data by subgroup vital in order to identify areas of need, a challenge that the Asian nonprofit community is well aware of and that can (and should) be addressed through data-collecting efforts.