Income inequality is often presented as a study in socioeconomic or racial difference — the racial wealth gap, for example, or comparisons of household income in rural vs. urban America. But, as Pew Research Center recently pointed out, another “important part of the story of rising income inequality is that experiences within America’s racial and ethnic communities vary strikingly from one group to the other.”
Take America’s Asian population — which now has the widest gap between its top and bottom earners, according to a new report from the research center.
From the report:
From 1970 to 2016, the gap in the standard of living between Asians near the top and the bottom of the income ladder nearly doubled, and the distribution of income among Asians transformed from being one of the most equal to being the most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups.
In this process, Asians displaced blacks as the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the U.S….
Asian Americans, of course, aren’t alone. According to Pew, the income gap between ALL Americans at the top and the bottom of the income distribution widened a whopping 27 percent over that same 46 years.
But the widening gap within the country’s Asian population is part of a story of several immigration laws, according to the research organization. Immigrants accounted for 81 percent of the growth in the adult Asian population from 1970 to 2016, following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. That law favored family reunification, and, together with the end of the Vietnam War, it brought a wave of refugees into the U.S.
“One result was that the share of new Asian immigrants working in high-skill occupations decreased from 1970 to 1990, and the share working in low-skill occupations increased,” according to the report.
More recently, however, the Immigration Act of 1990 (which sought to increase the inflow of skilled immigrants to the U.S.) coincided with a tech boom that brought a new wave of Asian immigrants from India under the H-1B visa program.
“Thus, since 1990, there has been an increase in the share of Asian immigrants employed in high-skill occupations,” according to the report.
The new data will likely be helpful for equity-focused policymakers — who haven’t always seen Asian Americans included in large research projects. Even when they are, “Asian” is itself a broad category that masks many historic ethnicities with differing median hourly wages and household incomes.
That variation, as Next City has covered, is a particular challenge for both the Asians and Pacific Islanders because of the “model minority” myth.
“On educational attainment or disconnected youth, they’re doing better as a group than others, but it’s really masking a lot,” Sarah Treuhaft, director of equitable growth initiatives at PolicyLink, told Next City in 2016. “It’s detrimental to the groups who aren’t doing as well.”
Pew’s report can be viewed here.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.