Southeast Asians most dependent on U.S. welfare

May 19, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Nearly 20 years after the end of the war in Southeast Asia brought thousands of Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese refugees to this country, many still languish in poverty, giving Southeast Asians the highest rate of welfare dependency of any racial or ethnic group.

More than 30 percent of all Southeast Asian households in the nation now depend on welfare for survival, according to a study on the economic diversity of Asian-Americans released yesterday in Washington.

Among some groups, such as Cambodians and Laotians in California, the percentage of those on welfare reaches 77 percent. Nationwide, only 8 percent of households received public assistance in 1991.

The report also seeks to add depth to the nation's often two-dimensional picture of Asian-Americans, who are the fastest-growing segment of the population, increasing from 1.4 million in 1960 to more than 7 million in 1990, or 3 percent of nation's total.

The report, based on a variety of sources such as the Census Bureau, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and state governments, was prepared by the Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute, based in Los Angeles, and the Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The success of Asian-American entrepreneurs and professionals has fostered an image as the "model minority" -- ostensibly more affluent, stable and highly educated.

Indeed, the report showed, the stereotype is true in many respects. Asian-Americans have the lowest divorce rate of any racial group (3 percent), the lowest rate of teen-age pregnancy (6 percent), the highest median family income ($35,900) and the lowest rate of unemployment (3.5 percent). The number of Asian-owned businesses has skyrocketed, growing by nearly 1,000 percent from 1972 to 1987.

But, the authors argued, those figures mask the group's economic problems. For example, many of the Asian-owned businesses suffer high turnover and low profits, and the per capita income of Asian-Americans, $10,500 in 1990, is lower than the $12,000 for non-Hispanic whites.

The stereotype of the "model minority" and the ignorance of the diversity of Asian-Americans has prevented the group from being adequately considered in national policy debates on issues such as poverty, economic development and health care, said Dr. Paul M. Ong, a professor of architecture and urban planning at UCLA and co-author of the study.

The report found the severest economic difficulties among Southeast Asians. The number of Southeast Asians on welfare, about 300,000 of the 1 million here, is still minor in comparison to the total in the country, making up about 2 percent of the total welfare population.

The flow of refugees from Southeast Asia began in 1975 after the end of the Vietnam War. The influx was originally seen as temporary, but the flow continues as new political upheavals and natural disasters draw more refugees to this country.

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