Little India: Overseas Indian, NRI, Asian Indian, Indian American

Some are ‘Crazy Rich,’ But Asians’ Inequality is Widest in the U.S.

A handout from Warner Bros. Entertainment of a scene from "Crazy Rich Asians," featuring from left: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu.

The leads of the new romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians, are precisely what you might expect, based on the title: picture-perfect images of the immigrant success story. Viewers might even get the impression from watching the film that every Asian lives a charmed life.

But that is not a full picture of the Asian-American experience. They are now the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the country, displacing African-Americans, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data that shows income inequality among Asian-Americans has nearly doubled from 1970 to 2016.

Asians in New York are the poorest immigrant group. The number of Asians living in poverty grew by 44 percent over about a decade and a half, to more than 245,000 in 2016, from 170,000 in 2000, according to the Asian American Federation.

While rich Asians have become the highest-earning group in the nation, income growth among poor Asians has largely stagnated. This trend mirrors that of other racial groups, though income inequality has accelerated fastest among Asians.

By 2016, Asians in the top 10th of income distribution earned about $120,000 more than those in the bottom 10th. Disparities among Asian-Americans are primarily driven by the different levels of education, skills and English-language proficiency. People from India and China have higher incomes than those from Southeast Asia because they have higher levels of education on average.

For example, three-fourths of Taiwanese and Indians in America have a bachelor’s degree or higher, said sociologist Jennifer Lee of Columbia University. Southeast Asian groups from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos lag well behind the average for other Asian-Americans.

Asian immigrants make up a less monolithic group than they once did. In 1970, Asian immigrants came mostly from East Asia, but South Asian immigrants are fueling the growth that makes Asian-Americans the fastest-expanding group in the country, said Lee.

Asian-Americans, who accounted for less than 1 percent of the population in 1970, are up to 6 percent today. South Asians and Southeast Asians together now outnumber East Asians. Family-sponsored migration remains the largest source of Asian immigration.

The disparity in income is in part caused by the gap between immigrants who arrived on skills-based visas and those who did not. “Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, they’re primarily refugee populations,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, director of AAPI Data, which publishes demographic data on Asian-Americans.

© New York Times 2018