Celebrating multi-culturalism has evolved beyond celebrating ethnic foods and historical heroes from a handful of cultures. In fact, there are national days throughout the year that commemorate the contribution of many different cultures. The month of May has been designated as Asian American Pacific Islander, or AAPI, Heritage Month, and this year’s theme is “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity.”
AAPI Heritage Month is significant because it encompasses more than 50 distinct ethnic groups which have each contributed to California communities past and present — from the Pilipinx community in 1587 to the Chamorro people in the early 1900s and many other AAPI who have made their home in this state. Here, their legacies have contributed to California’s greatness as a multi-cultural, economic leader.
Numbering more than six million, AAPI are the fastest-growing ethnic group in California. Within the AAPI group, Indian Americans and Taiwanese Americans have the highest median income, while Pacific Islanders have the lowest — those in the top 10% of the income distribution earned about 10 times as much as those in the bottom 10%.
Despite the “model minority” myth that all Asians are successful, some AAPI experience high levels of income inequality. Immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos face economic insecurity due to low education levels and language skills, which are needed to obtain higher wages. Because AAPI represent a significant percentage of the voting population and consumer base that supports local economies, not addressing AAPI income inequality creates a missed opportunity for all California communities to flourish.
Socioeconomic data divided by ethnic group could offer better insight into the underlying root causes of AAPI income inequality. Additionally, this type of disaggregated data could also prove useful in developing targeted policy interventions.
Current California policy measures such as the AAPI Equity Budget and the AB/SB183 Higher Education Trailer Bill are designed to address workplace and educational discrimination against AAPI. The AAPI Equity Budget funds more than 150 organizations aimed at helping the AAPI community with “community healing, language access, and data equity” through initiatives that deal with anti-AAPI violence and hate crimes.
However, neither of these measures directly address income inequality. According to Paul Graham, “to understand economic inequality, you have to go find individual people who are poor or rich and figure out why.” Targeted policy interventions derived from disaggregated data could prove more efficient, feasible and implementable than actions based on research that don’t identify the factors contributing to income inequality within individual AAPI ethnicities.
The AAPI Equity Budget addresses prejudices that affect hiring, training and promotions for all AAPI as a monolithic group, but does not target the individual challenges of subgroups in terms of racial violence and hate crimes. According to the AAPI Legislative Caucus, “many AAPIs continue to fear being in public spaces, and many hate incidents occur at retailers and other businesses.” However, income inequality is not only affected by discrimination, but also by language barriers, job skills or education levels, as well as different cultural influences.
The most visible driver of AAPI income inequality is related to job access at all levels of business, from entry level to C-suite. As such, AAPI are not employed commensurate with the 16% of the total California population they represent. That is daunting when you consider that the U.S. labor market significantly disadvantages low-skill workers.
In 2021, California allocated a historic amount of funding toward addressing AAPI racial equity. That budgeting should also be allocated specifically toward data disaggregation to address the specific drivers of income inequality. AB 2448 is another California policy measure enacted to educate low-skill workers and address prejudices in the workplace. However, AB 2448 should be reformed to include education targeted toward specific ethnicities within AAPI workers so they have more opportunity to thrive with increased job opportunities and wages.
Reforming AB 2448 to include the use of disaggregated data could prove vital for implementing future policies. The money, time and effort involved in funding data-driven research has the potential to lower the cost of future policies that apply specifically to individual ethnic groups. Certain AAPI sub-communities do not have the same opportunities to succeed due to income inequality, language barriers and other factors. Such research could identify how to quantify government budget proposals and measures to best support AAPI to fight income inequality. Disaggregated data is the path forward to illuminate historical trends in a more significant way than aggregate data could ever do.
A heritage month invites us to recognize, accept and celebrate cultural differences with an awareness of not only a specific culture’s contributions, but also what contributions we can make in return. According to some experts, “a combination of grassroots efforts, greater funding, and federal support can provide the research and information we need to promote equity for all.”
My own opinion is that we can celebrate the AAPI Heritage Month theme “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity” by becoming aware of opportunities to lessen AAPI income inequality and by supporting organizations that implement data disaggregation into specific policy measures. Besides the AAPI Legislative Caucus, some AAPI hero organizations which could use support are: AAPI Victory Alliance, White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. Not only in the month of May, but all year long, “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity” begins with us all and the actions we take today.