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New report highlights the experience of Asian-American and Pacific Islander workers in California struggling with poverty

Fontane Lo

The Irvine Foundation’s singular goal is a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. We cannot achieve that if we do not listen to and understand the experiences of all workers, even when it takes extra time, effort, and resources.

California is home to about one-third of the nation’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population, a diverse and rapidly growing community. In fact, people from Asia and the Pacific Islands are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States and represent 56% of recent immigrants in California.

In both research and politics, the diversity of people categorized as AAPI is under one label, and few studies interview AAPI residents in the large variety of languages they speak. Cost and capacity serve as major barriers. As a result, what we know of AAPI communities is limited, painting dozens of nationalities and ethnicities as a monolithic group. If we cannot break out the data, it is impossible to see the deep and unique challenges that exist.

Our California Worker Study last year is a case in point. In 2018, the Irvine Foundation gave a grant to Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) for a California Workers Study. The survey, conducted in Spanish and English, provides a unique snapshot of California’s workforce, including how the views of workers struggling with poverty compared to those who are economically secure. The survey of 3,318 Californians was representative of the state’s population, but the sample of AAPI respondents did not allow an exploration by nationality or ethnicity. This year, we partnered with PRRI and AAPI Data to fund the first 2019 AAPI California Workers Survey.

The study was conducted in seven languages and surveyed more than 2,600 California AAPI residents with an intentional sample of nine ethnic groups: Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. The in-depth look at California AAPI workers shows financial security among many but also stark differences between AAPI communities.

AAPI experiences vary notably by community — some are less likely to struggle with poverty than the average Californian, and some are more likely to find themselves struggling. No matter their country of origin, all AAPI groups report challenges with wage theft and job security. Example insights include:

  • Nearly four in 10 AAPI California workers (38%) are struggling with poverty.
  • Certain communities are more likely to be struggling with financial insecurity. Hmong (44%) and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (36%) Californians are the most likely to be working and struggling with poverty, but all groups — representing millions of Californians — report struggling to make ends meet.
  • A majority of AAPI Californians disagree that “hard work and determination alone” guarantee success, including two-thirds (64%) of workers struggling with poverty and (54%) of workers who are not.
  • California AAPI workers in inland California report struggling with poverty at higher rates than those living in other regions of the state. The San Joaquin Valley (50%) and Inland Empire (37%) have the highest proportion of AAPIs who are working and struggling with poverty.
  • One out of three struggling workers (35%) report experiencing at least one form of wage theft in the last year.
  • AAPI Californians are more likely to report dealing with racial discrimination than Californians overall (17% vs. 12%, respectively). Among AAPI subgroups, experiences of racial discrimination are highest among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (29%) and Indians (24%).
  • Most California AAPI workers feel replaceable. AAPI workers who are struggling with poverty (70%) are roughly as likely as more financially secure workers (64%) to say that employers see people like them as replaceable.
  • California AAPI workers believe it is important for workers to organize to protect their rights, including 69% of all AAPI Californians and 76% of struggling workers.

The report contains many more insights, especially between different AAPI communities in California. It also builds on our 2018 California Worker Survey — and our ongoing commitment to listening. We aim to use our listening efforts — with workers, nonprofits, employers, and more — to inform our strategy and grantmaking.

We also value this survey’s potential to spur new conversations and serve the communities studied. PRRI and AAPI Data will present this work with AAPI community groups, our philanthropic peers, and the California Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.

We invite you to read the full 2019 AAPI California Workers Survey and explore learning briefs for specific populations here.