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Making America Work: Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the Workforce and Business, 2014

Co-produced with Asian American Federation, this report highlights the economic contributions and challenges of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in America’s economy. Despite growing buying power and job creation, communities see declining net worth and growing numbers of low-income workers.

Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) are among the fastest growing racial groups in the country.  These disproportionately immigrant communities have made significant contributions to the economy through their labor in key industries and entrepreneurial activity. Yet the report notes that Asian Americans and NHPI were also impacted by the recession, experiencing significant declines in net worth and growing numbers of low-income workers in recent years.

Making America Work highlights the contributions Asian Americans and NHPI make in the workforce and in business, as well as some of the challenges they experience.  It has three main findings.

While Asian American and NHPI populations command increasing buying power, the Great Recession had a devastating effect on Asian American household wealth

As Asian American and NHPI populations have grown at top rates nationwide, Asian American and NHPI buying power has also dramatically increased and expanded economic presence in the nation’s consumer market.  Between 2000 and 2014, Asian American and NHPI buying power increased 180% nationwide. Growth in Asian American and NHPI buying power has been dramatic both in states that have seen the greatest increases in population (e.g. Nevada saw a 277% increase) and states with large, established communities.

Yet Asian American households saw net worth drop by more than half during the Great Recession, a rate similar to other communities of color. The median net worth of Asian American households declined 59% between 2005 and 2010, caused by significant decreases in home equity.

Asian American households saw net worth drop by more than half during the Great Recession.

Asian Americans in both white- and blue-collar occupations are driving key industries throughout our nation’s economy, yet increasing numbers are low-income workers.

Asian Americans are overrepresented among white-collar workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries critical to the economy, including electronic component and product manufacturing, computer systems design, and both internet and software publishing.  Nearly one-third of medical scientists are Asian American. However, Asian Americans and NHPI are also overrepresented among blue-collar occupations: disproportionate numbers of nail salon, apparel manufacturing, and taxi workers are Asian American.  More than half of all miscellaneous personal appearance workers in the United States are Asian American. NHPI workers are primarily overrepresented in blue-collar occupations, such as security officers, health care aides and assistants, stock clerks, hand laborers and movers, food preparation workers, and grounds maintenance workers.

Additionally, the Asian American workforce is disproportionately immigrant; 74% of Asian American workers are immigrants and 80% of Asian American STEM workers are immigrants. One in five NHPI workers are immigrants. The challenges Asian American and NHPI workers face is seen in the growing number of those who are low-income. The number of low-income Asian American workers grew 38% from 2006 to 2012, a rate faster than any other racial group. Much of this growth has been from low-income native-born Asian Americans.

Asian American– and NHPI-owned businesses employ millions nationwide, creating jobs that stimulate recovery in the wake of the economic crisis.

There are over 1.5 million Asian American– and nearly 38,000 NHPI-owned businesses nationwide; the vast majority are immigrant owned. The number of Asian American– and NHPI-owned businesses are growing at top rates, 40% and 30%, respectively. These businesses are making large contributions to the growth of certain industries. In 2007, 21% of total new businesses in the accommodation and food services industry were Asian American–owned. These businesses are employing large numbers of workers nationwide. Asian American-owned businesses employ over 2.8 million workers, creating nearly 600,000 jobs from 2002 to 2007 alone. NHPI-owned businesses employ nearly 38,000 Americans nationwide. 

The Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as one with fewer than 500 employees. Most Asian American-owned businesses are small businesses and many of these business owners face challenges. Half of Asian American-owned small businesses were established in 2000 or after and may not have a firm foothold in the economy. Nearly half of Asian American-owned small businesses conduct transactions in a language other than English. This shows many Asian American business owners may face language barriers and disproportionately serve immigrant populations. Additionally, according to a SBA study, Asian American business owners are more likely than White business owners to be denied credit, even after controlling for credit history, credit score, and wealth.

While some large Asian American–owned businesses are among the nation’s leaders in their respective industries, Asian Americans and NHPI remain underrepresented among the leadership of Fortune 500 companies.  In early 2014, less than 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs were Asian or Asian American.

The report was launched in New York City and was attended by nearly 100 people, including those from community organizations, foundations, and businesses. The panel featured David Kallick, Senior Fellow of the Fiscal Policy Institute; Hong Shing Lee, Executive Director of CMP; John Choe, Executive Director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce; Sara Tang, Small Business Banker of Bank of America; and Richard Lui, News Anchor at MSNBC.

The report was made possible by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, Cyrus Chung Ying Tang Foundation, and Bank of America.

Related Materials

Download the full report here

Other reports in the Community of Contrasts series

Press Release

Asian American Federation

Press Coverage



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Our mission is to advocate for civil rights, provide legal services and education, and build coalitions to positively influence and impact Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders and to create a more equitable and harmonious society.