HomeAsian AmericansLanguage Barriers & Poverty in the AAPI Communities

Language Barriers & Poverty in the AAPI Communities

By Tracey Ross

New York ChinatownWhether it’s the debate over immigration reform or reports on the future of a “majority minority” nation, conversations around our changing demographics often center on the growth of the Latino population. While this is understandable given that much of the demographic shifts are attributed to Latinos, the number of Asian immigrants is increasing rapidly. In fact, the Asian population grew by 46 percent between 2000 and 2010, and recently surpassed Latinos as the nation’s fastest-growing group of new immigrants. This is why it is significant that the White House held a summit yesterday on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of AAPI Heritage Month.

While we often discuss Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as one demographic group, it is important to acknowledge that experiences vary greatly within this community, particularly when it comes to economic wellbeing. For example, while Japanese Americans have a poverty rate of 8.4 percent—nearly half the national average—Cambodian Americans and Hmong Americans have much higher poverty rates at 18.8 percent and 24 percent, respectively. This is why Asian American and Pacific Islanders can be viewed as having relatively high household income, while also being one of the fastest-growing populations in poverty since the Great Recession.

One contributing factor to the differences between AAPI groups is English proficiency, as adults with limited English skills tend to have higher rates of unemployment and lower wages. This is critical as Asian Americans are among the most likely to have limited English proficiency, and one in five Asian households in the U.S. is considered “linguistically isolated,” where no one in the household over the age of 14 speaks English “very well.” And the language barrier impacts Asian Americans regardless of birth place. In fact, nearly 1 out of 10 U.S.-born Asian Americans has limited English proficiency.

English proficiency among parents is also critical when it comes to accessing the knowledge and resources necessary to help children navigate classrooms, health facilities, and even the juvenile justice system. Further, higher proficiency in English among parents is associated with better academic and economic outcomes for their children. On top of this, English language learner students—students whose native language is not English or who come from environments where English is not the dominant language—are more likely to attend high-poverty schools where resources are limited. Moreover, they must acquire language skills while studying the same content areas as their English-speaking peers, essentially doing double the work.

Given the fact that English proficiency impacts employment outcomes, family responsibilities, and a child’s academic success, the language barrier can create a poverty trap for families and a loss of human capital for communities.

As the number of immigrants continues to increase, one of the most significant ways communities can respond to this influx is by ensuring greater access to English language instruction to ensure that all families can fully participate in society. In a recent report titled “The Case for a Two-Generation Approach for Educating English Language Learners,” I outline how communities should support strategies that engage parents and children and improve the academic and economic well-being of both generations. These strategies include adopting a community school model—meaning schools provide critical wraparound services for students and families.

In my hometown of Oakland, California, half the students speak a language other than English, with Spanish and Cantonese being the most common. Recently, the school district chose to move towards the community school model and provide a wide spectrum of wraparound services for all students, including: physical and mental health services, nutrition, housing, employment, parenting, and language acquisition courses. In addition, the district’s Family Literacy program provides parents with English as a second language and computer literacy courses. These classes are integrated into the child’s school, giving parents the opportunity to use the same resources as their children and gain a greater understanding of what their children are learning.

“You need to look longitudinally,” Sue Pon, director of adult education for Oakland, told Fusion. “We are empowering a family and a community, not just a child.”

Given the fact that the majority of labor-force growth in the United States over the next four decades is projected to come from immigrants and their children, investing in these two populations is critical to the success of not only these families but also the U.S. economy.

Tracey Ross is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress. The story is reposted with permission from TalkPoverty.org.


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