November 1, 2014

The Dollars and Census

(originally published at Hyphen Magazine)

Photo courtesy of  RangerRick

Hey there, and welcome back to Hyphen’s series of census-related blog stories, here to shine some light on how the 2010 Census serves to inform and inspire action in the AAPI community. With some help from the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders, this lucky Hyphen staffer had the opportunity to interview some truly amazing AAPI movers and shakers about their opinions on a few of the economy-related facts emerging from the data, and hear how their individual stories mirror the national trends of today.

So let’s Scrooge McDuck this piece and dive right into the money.

Recent demographic changes show how AAPIs are vital to creating a new generation of American jobs. They play a key role in the country’s economic growth and security despite AAPI workers also facing significant challenges in the labor market. A study released by the  Economic Policy Institute found that although Asian Americans have the lowest unemployment rate of the major racial groups, and are advantaged in that a large share of them have bachelor’s and advanced degrees, Asian Americans with bachelor’s degrees have a higher unemployment rate than whites with comparable education. They also have a larger share of workers than whites without high school diplomas — though Asian American high school dropouts are more successful than comparable whites at finding jobs.

In addition, Asian Americans are unemployed for the long term longer than any other major minority groupAs a result of all this, economic hardships and disadvantages for Asian Americans are sometimes overlooked.

May Chen, Executive Board Member of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and long-time garment workers advocate, weighed in on the issue. “People get jobs through networks, and often times Asians are not in those networks. I see this cross all sectors, from the college-educated to low-wage workers. Say you are a garment worker and the factory you work for closes, you often don’t know where else to look for a job. In many jobs, there’s also the emphasis on people skills, maybe more than actual technical skills. Asian Americans can be shy, less outgoing, and stick to themselves.”

Despite – or, perhaps, due to — these considerable challenges in the labor market, US Census Bureau data shows that the number of US businesses owned by people of Asian origin increased 40.4 percent to 1.5 million between 2002 and 2007, growing at more than twice the national rate. Some, such as Farooq Kathwari — CEO and president of Ethan Allen, an American furniture and home furnishings company – attributes this trend to cultural leanings of AAPI immigrants. “In my personal opinion, it’s a result of their cultural background and the culture of hard work, self-reliance, family structure and being engaged in the entrepreneurial culture,” says Kathwari. “Refugees and immigrants are entrepreneurial by nature. Otherwise we wouldn’t leave home.”

Kathwari — who is not only a successful businessman, but a heavyweight in the advocacy world for conflict resolution and peacekeeping — first moved to the US as a political-asylum seeking refugee from Kashmir. His story is compelling, and his immigrant experience has deeply informed his business ethics: “Living in the mountains of Kashmir, I grew up surrounded by art, music, food, and beauty, but it was also an area of conflict. It was a place where you realize the importance of dignity. And what happens when people are humiliated — they are de-motivated.” Under him, Ethan Allen has been a counter-example to the trend of businesses moving their manufacturing abroad. The company has maintained and even increased jobs and production in the US throughout the tough economic climate.

Echoing the opportunities that can be made available in the US is Eugene Xiong, founder and president of Foxit Corporation. Xiong is a Chinese immigrant who moved to the US after spending 5 years developing a new software in PDF technology. His company has not suffered due to the economy; in fact, his business has been bolstered by the tough economic times.

Xiong decided to grow his business in the US because it is the “best place to do business. … If I were still in China, it would be totally different. In the US, you can reach global markets. In any corner of the world, we can be a competitor. Here we have intellectual property protection and the potential for international brand recognition.”

The trend of increased Asian-owned business in the past ten years is something Xiong has witnessed on a personal level. Many of his friends, who like him are college-educated Chinese immigrants, are making significant achievements in technology and professional services.

“Within the past 20 years when China opened up, I have seen many friends in my situation. They start as staff or attendees, get promoted, and over time they gain internal insight on the market and customers, and feel like they have the knowledge and power to start their own business. They’re figuring out how to take risks. When we first came to the US we just wanted to feed and support our families, but now we’re gaining the confidence to start our own businesses.”

When asked about where the economy is headed, Xiong replied, “I am optimistic about the economy, because everyone I meet is working hard. As long as everyone is working hard, there’s no reason we can’t be optimistic.”

But AAPI entrepreneurship is not limited to large corporations or competitive tech markets. There are individuals and organizations working toward economic viability on a much smaller, grassroots level. One such group is the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVN-CDC), which leads innovative, sustainable economic development projects in New Orleans East within the Vietnamese American community. Born out of response to Hurricane Katrina, the MQVN-CDC offers hands-on direct services and consultation to affected communities, and focuses on addressing needs that the community itself has identified. In particular, they are trying to combat the aforementioned long-term unemployment that affects AAPI communities.

After the BP oil spill in the Gulf, the whole network of employment vanished for long-line fishermen and oyster shuckers (mostly female) who lost their jobs of over 35 years. Without other work experience and their friends and family also out of a job, this group could have easily fallen into long-term unemployment.

Thus, a current MQVN-CDC project is transitioning these unemployed seafood industry workers into sustainable, urban farming and aquaculture jobs. Workshops and on-the-job trainings show them how to create backyard aquacultures in a closed system, that is, raising fish and vegetation that are self-sustaining because they feed off the other’s waste.

“Words don’t do justice to what these gardens look like,” said Tuan Nguyen, Deputy Director of the MQVN-CDC. “It’s no regular backyard garden, they are terraced and very organized, the way they did it back in Vietnam.”

Creating a new industry for these products as well as encouraging local veggie growers to sell outside of the community is no easy task. But community leaders are committed to the neighborhood. Nguyen was born and raised in the New Orleans neighborhood of Versailles, and has no intention of ever leaving.

When asked about where the economy is headed, Nguyen replied: “We hope it will stabilize so that fishermen can fish, growers can grow, sellers can sell, and buyers can buy,” said Nguyen. “To create sustainability — both economic and monetary, not just food. We want long-lasting effects.”

The gains and successes of AAPIs give much reason to celebrate. However, there also lie more nuanced complexities when considering the economy in terms of Census findings and data.

-Nicole Wong

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