The “model minority” notion which broadly paints the Asian American population has rendered Southeast Asian Americans – who remain with large socioeconomic obstacles impeding their communities’ successes – invisible to policymakers and to the American public, inhibiting the widespread implementation of effective assistance to vulnerable Southeast Asian Americans nationwide.
The discussion surrounding the "model minority" assertion recently resurfaced in public attention with the publication of Andrew Sullivan's "Why Do People Feel Sorry for Hillary Clinton?" in New York Magazine. At the end of the article, in arguing that centuries of oppressive structures can be overcome by hard work and traditional family values, Sullivan claims that "Asian Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America".
In 2016, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Nielsen company released a report titled “Asian Americans: Culturally Diverse and Expanding Their Footprint”. One of the key statements made in the report that often backs the "model minority" assertion was that “with a household median income of $74,829, the median Asian-American household income is 39% greater than the national median income of $53,657”.
Although the average household income for Asian Americans has recently surpassed the average household income for most Americans, according to a report on income and poverty from the Center for American Progress’s “State of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders” series, Southeast Asian Americans continue to remain in relatively high levels of poverty and low levels of household income. Asian Americans in general also tend to live in multi-generational households. Therefore, in addition to having lower household incomes, Southeast Asian Americans split those lower household incomes with both immediate and extended family members, reducing the spending capabilities of Southeast Asian Americans as individuals and compounding economic vulnerability of Southeast Asian Americans as a community with individual financial weaknesses.
While Asian American families and individuals originally from Japan, China, and India often migrated voluntarily to pursue educational and vocational opportunities, a majority of Southeast Asian Americans left their countries of origin involuntarily as refugees. Therefore, Southeast Asian Americans and Southeast Asian American families were and are more unprepared and unequipped to adapt to life in the United States. Data collected from Southeast Asian American communities reflects this difference in their capability to adapt. The AAPI Data project by Karthick Ramakrishnan at the University of California, Riverside published data that reveals that most Southeast Asian Americans are more likely to be uninsured, have more difficulties paying for college educations, are less likely to hold a bachelor's degree or higher, are more likely to be unemployed, and are more likely to have lower-quality children's education. Converse to the "model minority" notion, AAPI Data also recently reported data that demonstrates that most Southeast Asian Americans have significantly high rates of limited English proficiency: 54 percent, 58 percent, and 60 percent for Cambodian Americans, Thai Americans, and Vietnamese Americans, respectively.
These devastating numbers extend to Southeast Asian American elders, illustrating how detrimental the obstacles Southeast Asian American communities face are as they continue throughout Southeast Asian Americans' lives. According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), Southeast Asian American elders are twice as likely to be impoverished than elders overall, and over 85 percent of older Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong Americans have limited English proficiency.
Andrew Sullivan's assertion that Asian Americans are largely affluent and socioeconomically secure – similar to many other claims that Asian Americans are the "model minority" – is a detrimental generalization of the Asian American population that erases the grave issues of poverty, education, and health in the Southeast Asian American community, as well as other disadvantaged Asian American subgroups. Without disaggregating and contextualizing the data used to evaluate the socioeconomic status of Asian Americans, asserting a claim of wealth, stability, and influence among all Asian Americans is not only fallacious, but dangerously damaging, suppressing the voices of Southeast Asian Americans advocating for the bettered welfare of their communities and preventing the holistic improvement of Southeast Asian American lives.