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A Community of Contrasts: Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States

A Community of Contrasts: Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States provides a host of critical data on NHPI, a community that is growing rapidly but unfortunately often remains at the margins of policy conversations, due in part to the overly broad “API” racial category used in data collection and reporting.

The NHPI community is one of the fastest growing and most diverse racial groups in the United States

The NHPI community grew 40 percent over the decade, a rate rivaling Latinos and Asian Americans. There are now more than 1.2 million NHPIs living in the U.S. According to Census Bureau projections, there will be nearly 2 million NHPIs by 2030. The largest number of NHPI live in Hawai‘i and California. However, the fastest growing populations live in Arkansas, Nevada, and Alaska. Many NHPI are multiracial (56%) and about one in three NHPI are youth under the age of 18 (34%). This growth in population is reflected in many aspects of civic life. Nearly 1 in 8 NHPI are veterans and a significant proportion of the community serves in the military. One in ten NHPI are small business owners and about a quarter of a million NHPI voted in the last major presidential election.


The NHPI community is also becoming more ethnically diverse

In the United States, the NHPI label encompasses over 20 distinct cultural groups that originate from over 20,000 Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Though about 43% of the population is Native Hawaiian, some of the fastest growing groups are Micronesian groups such as Marshallese and Chuukese. Between 2000 and 2010, all NHPI ethnic groups grew faster than the total population as you can see from the chart below.


While many NHPI are born in the United States, particularly Hawai‘i, many originate from islands that have other distinct political relationships with the United States

These political relationships, the majority defined by wars and colonization, vary greatly and often determine whether those coming to the 50 United States from these islands are considered citizens, immigrant, or migrants and if their families are eligible for U.S. resources and programs. For example, some Pacific Islanders are considered U.S. nationals because they come from U.S. territories, while some may be migrants from countries that entered into a Compact of Free Association (COFA) agreement with the U.S. In other cases, many Pacific Islanders are foreign nationals from countries with no U.S. association and must apply for legal permanent resident status to move to the U.S. Many undocumented Pacific Islanders also live in the United State, similar to other immigrant communities. These unique distinctions create a host of challenges once immigrants arrive in the U.S. In addition to immigration status, many are also limited English proficient. The map below, which you can also find in our report, provides a very basic overview of these unique distinctions. Understanding these diverse immigrant experiences is critical for policy makers who seek to address the needs of the Pacific Islander community living in the United States.


Data show that NHPI youth face significant challenges accessing higher education

Educational data on NHPI are often aggregated with Asian American data, masking the distinct challenges that many NHPI face. Disaggregated data in our report show that many NHPI experience barriers to higher education. For example, although a recent 2012 ACT report showed that 81% of NHPI aspire to earn a college degree, NHPI actually face low admissions and enrollment rates to 4-year colleges. For example, University of California (UC) admissions data reveal significant disparities. About 62% of NHPI were admitted to UC schools in the fall of 2011, a rate lower than all other racial groups except for Blacks or African Americans. Tongan American students had lower rates of admission than any other group (42%). In the fall of 2011, only 83 NHPI students enrolled in the UC’s nine undergraduate campuses. College enrollment among NHPI nationally is also lower than average, with only about 38 percent of NHPI college-aged youth enrolled in 2011. Once in college, NHPI also face challenges with retention. According to National Center for Education Statistics data, less than 23% of NHPI students earned their bachelor’s degrees in the traditional 4 years, a rate lower than all other racial groups except for Blacks or African Americans.


NHPI were impacted by the recession and are still facing economic challenges

Since the great recession, an increasing number of NHPI found themselves living in poverty and unable to find jobs. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of NHPI who were unemployed increased 123% and the number living in poverty increased 56%, rates higher than any racial group. One-third of NHPI are low-income. Disaggregated data showed that Marshallese, Tongan, Samoan, and Palauan Americans are disproportionately low-income. While the majority of NHPI are renters, those who owned homes were more likely to be at risk of foreclosure than Whites.


NHPI face health disparities yet lack access to quality, affordable, culturally appropriate care

Data also shows that the NHPI population faces high rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. In addition, the number of suicide deaths among NHPI has increased 170% between 2005 and 2010. At the same time, about one in seven NHPI are uninsured. Tongan, Marshallese, Fijian, and Guamanian or Chamorro are less likely to be insured than average. What is important to note is that among those least likely to be insured, disproportionate numbers face languages barriers which pose additional challenges when accessing care. Immigration status and cost are also barriers for many low-income immigrants in the community as well. The chart below shows the proportion of those who live without health insurance by race and NHPI ethnic group.

As you can see, data on NHPI separate from Asian Americans can help shed light on the contributions this community has made as well as the disparities and needs that still exist. Understanding the richness and diversity of the NHPI population can lead to better policymaking for this underserved community. For more data and findings, you can download the full report here.

Related Materials

Download the full report here

Other reports in the Community of Contrasts series

Press release

Press Coverage:

Viewed by itself, Pacific Islander experience looks very different (KPCC)

How Pacific Islander students are slipping through the cracks (NBC News)





A Community of Contrasts: Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, 2014  was made possible by the generous support of the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, Cyrus Chung Ying Tang Foundation, and Bank of America. 




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