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A Portrait of Chinese America

New Study Suggests Economic Glass Ceiling May Still Exist

AsianWeek, News report, Rex Feng Posted: Nov 22, 2008

An economic glass ceiling may still exist for many Chinese Americans who are climbing the income ladder, according to a broad-based social and economic study published this month by the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA).

Although Chinese Americans are more educated the proportion of Chinese Americans 25 years and older who have earned a college degree (51.7 percent) dwarfs that of the general population (27 percent) and the median household income for Chinese American families also outpaces that of the general population ($62,705 in 2006 inflation-adjusted dollars compared to $48,451), Chinese Americans consistently trail behind their non-Hispanic white counterparts in every pay grade category. For example, among workers who have earned a bachelors degree, the median income for Chinese Americans was $55,571, compared to $62,185 for non-Hispanic whites.

Contrary to popular beliefs, Chinese Americans often face extra barriers to economic success, despite their educational achievements, said Larry H. Shinigawa, American Studies professor at the University of Maryland.

Controlling for gender and industry of occupation skews the data slightly. Chinese American women who have completed at least some college have a higher median income than non-Hispanic white women. Chinese American workers display slightly higher median incomes in financial, computer and engineering occupations, while trailing further behind, up to 44 percent, in legal and medical fields.

The overall data imply that, regardless of occupation, and given the same educational level, Chinese Americans earn higher than the national median income but lag behind their non-Hispanic white counterparts.

Time and hard work simply havent been enough for Chinese Americans to fully enter into mainstream social and professional circles, Shinigawa said. I suspect there are many reasons such as language barriers or simply the difficulties that go along with being identified as an outsider. In the long run, increasing mentoring efforts and leadership opportunities can enhance the Chinese American community. You need a pipeline, a network to help young professionals rise to their potential, and increase Chinese American participation in top positions.

The study paints an intricately detailed sketch of Chinese Americans in the United States today, on topics as diverse as education, voter participation, marriage and citizenship.

An important overarching finding of the study was that Chinese Americans, frequently relegated to a singular ethnic group, are actually quite diverse. Factors such as country of origin, generation, language ability, degree of naturalization and immigration period were all found to affect the socioeconomic profile of Chinese American subgroups in some cases to a drastic degree, such as household income.

[This study] surely demonstrates the need to stop treating Chinese Americans as a monolithic group, said Shinigawa. Different segments of the population have very different needs.

Socioeconomic stratification in the Chinese American community was found to be pronounced. Instead of following a bell curve typical of normalized population studies, statistics showed split distribution in personal income, residential pattern and education. Younger, later generations who were well educated and upwardly mobile formed a socioeconomic profile vastly different from older, multilingual immigrant generations. This bimodal society made a strong case for the level of diversity to be found within the Chinese American ethnic group.

It makes for a rather bipolar picture of wealth and poverty, high and low education levels, white and blue collars, Shinagawa said. Its a pattern you expect to see after a wave of immigration. But in this case, the long-term settled population has yet to achieve full equal treatment.

Other interesting findings were that Chinese Americans accounted for 24.3 percent of Asian Americans in the United States, making them the largest ethnic subgroup; 59.5 percent claim mainland China as their country of origin, with 15.9 percent from Taiwan, 15.3 percent from the Chinese diaspora and 9.4 percent from Hong Kong; an estimated 70.2 percent of Chinese Americans are U.S. citizens.

Another interesting find is that 53.8 percent of all Chinese Americans lived in either California or New York, giving the two states the nations highest Chinese American populations. Chinese Americans are more likely to be married than the general population and have a lower divorce rate. Slightly more than one in 10 Chinese Americans has a multiracial background.

The study a joint venture between OCA, a national Asian Pacific American advocacy organization, and the University of Maryland, College Park was a comprehensive analysis of U.S. government census data.

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