Economic Success for Many in Asian American Community Hides Rapid Expansion in Poverty, Unemployment

By Andre Goulet

The increase in Michigan’s Asian American population over the last decade to around 240,000 is cause for celebration.  But a community long associated with economic success and educational excellence also contains a large and growing level of poverty that is often hidden from view.

In a recent report, ‘A Community of Contrasts: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the Midwest’, the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, a leading civil rights organization, conducted demographic analysis of major population centers in the region, including Chicago, Cleveland and Metro Detroit. What the report highlights is a growing gap between Asian Americans at the top and the bottom of the economic ladder.

Metro Detroit’s 200,000 Asian Americans are primarily concentrated in Oakland, Livingston and Macomb counties.  Indians are the largest ethnic group in the state with a population of nearly 70,000.  Michigan is also home to more than 36,000 Chinese and Taiwanese, 23,000 Filipinos, 18,000 Koreans and 12,000 Japanese.   Other significant populations include around 10,000 Pakistanis, more than 9000 Bangladeshis and as many as 8000 Vietnamese.  The population of Bangladeshis has seen the fastest growth in the last decade with a population increase of 230%  This rate of growth has seen the state’s Bangladeshi population more than double in size, a demographic expansion marked by the transition of historically Polish Hamtramck into the first Muslim-majority city in the nation.

The level of Asian American financial success in Michigan is impressive: 30% of Asian Americans in the state earn more than $100,000 a year. This is both proportionally and statistically far greater than the 13% of the general population who enjoy this level of income.  This income level is also greater than that of Asian Americans in other states across the Midwest (13%) and the country as a whole (23%).  Educational achievement for Asian American Michiganders is also very high, with an 86% level of high school graduation and a 61% college graduation level.  Additionally, as many as 33% of Asian Americans in the state hold a graduate or professional degree.

However, these material and educational successes belie a 60% increase in the number of Asian Americans living in poverty in the state since 2000.  According to the 2014 census, more than 33,000 Asian American Michiganders are part of the  1.6 million state residents living below the poverty line.  A pretax income of around $22,000 for a family of four, $17,000 for a single parent and $10,000 for a senior citizen set the level for the poverty line threshold, income which does not include benefits like public housing, Medicaid and food stamps.

Poverty rates vary considerably among Asian American ethnic groups.  Bangladeshi Americans have the highest poverty rate of any racial or ethnic group in metro Detroit at 41%.  This contrasts with just 6% of Filipinos and 8% of Japanese Americans who subsist on incomes that fall below the federal poverty line.  Per capita income for Bangladeshi Michiganders stands at just $11,000 a year.

Poverty for those over 65 is also an increasingly serious concern in the community: as many as one in five Korean American and more than one in five Chinese American senior citizens are poor, a number that is notably higher than the 7% poverty rate for White seniors.

Causes of poverty can be traced to the number of unemployed Asian Americans in the state as well as limited access to health care.  The number of unemployed Asian Americans in Michigan increased by an incredible 267% between 2007 and 2010, by far the highest increase of any racial group. In 2010, about 8% of Asian Americans were unemployed.  Asian Americans work primarily in manufacturing; health care and social assistance as well as in the professional, scientific, and technical services industries. The decline in manufacturing work in Michigan has hit Asian American communities hard, a trend unlikely to reverse itself in the near future.

Asian Americans in Michigan are more likely than Whites to be without health insurance, at rates of 12% versus 10%, respectively. Among Asian American groups, an estimated 14% of Korean Americans are uninsured, compared to 12% of Michigan’s total population.  Pregnant Vietnamese women in Metro Detroit are more likely than Whites to receive little or no prenatal care at rates of 9% to 4%.  Meanwhile, between 2005 and 2009, Asian Americans in Metro Detroit were the only racial group in which cancer was the leading cause of death: 27% of Asian American deaths were caused by cancer, Furthermore, Indian Americans are the only Asian American ethnic group where heart disease is the leading cause of death, with mortality levels of 28%.  Tragically, a greater percentage of Asian American deaths were attributable to suicide than any other racial group.  Among Asian American ethnic groups, 4% of Chinese and 3% of Korean American deaths were due to suicide.

Looking past the cold remoteness of statistics and numbers, however, one thing is clear: poverty is a serious and pressing issue for  Asian American communities in Michigan regardless of ethnic background or origin.  Citizens in need can reach out for government assistance through the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Michigan Family Independence Program.  Many churches and mosques in the community also offer help for families and individuals.  For more information, please contact South Asian American Voices for Impact (SAAVI), a non-profit community organization offering advocacy, education and outreach efforts for South Asian Americans at or the United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) program at .

MI Asian Staff
Author: MI Asian Staff