For unemployed Americans, the new year was not a good one.
With the ushering in of 2014, many of America’s unemployed saw a sudden and terrifying cut to their long-term federal benefits. On December 28th, 1.3 million Americans battling long-term unemployment — that is, unemployment lasting longer than 6 months — suddenly found that the federal program that provided them with unemployment benefits had expired. And with that came the loss of critical income that has helped buoy these unemployed Americans through one of the toughest economic recessions in this nation’s history.
As the supposed Model Minority, Asian Americans are typically lauded as hard-working members of the workforce, and cited as reasons why unemployment benefits are unnecessary. Republicans frequently parade the Asian American community — and our below-average aggregate unemployment rate of ~6% — as reason to stop federal programs aimed to help this nation’s poor.
And, surprisingly, few Asian Americans have taken up the cause for maintaining or extending benefits for unemployed Americans. Yet, when we dig deeper into the statistics, there is ample evidence to suggest that cuts to long-term unemployment benefits should be a major cause for concern for the Asian American community.
Adjustment for Ethnicity or Education Level Shows Disproportionately Higher Unemployment Among Asian Americans (vs Whites)
Most studies cite aggregated unemployment rates when they consider the relative joblessness of various racial groups — that is, unemployment across all ages, genders, nativity, and education levels. And when you do that, you get (probably as expected) a strikingly low jobless rate for Asian Americans relative to other racial groups (adapted from infographic here).
But there are two problems with these numbers.
First is the innate problem of lumping all Asian American ethnicities into a single racial group, combining self-selected East Asian immigrant families with Asian Americans from other ethnicities living in depressed or impoverished regions of the country. Such ethnically-stratified data are rarely collected, but the Department of Labor Statistics (DOL) has actually addressed this question. And, when you compare various Asian ethnicities that make-up the aggregate unemployment number above, you find that the overall Asian American unemployment rate is heavily skewed by the low unemployment rate of East Asians (which may be itself heavily skewed by highly-skilled foreign-born workers, see below). In 2010, the DOL reported that the unemployment rate of South Asians and “Other Asians” (whatever that means) is actually roughly equal to or actually exceeds the national average.
Second, consider for a moment the assumptions made when you cite an aggregated unemployment rate. This number is meaningful only if you assume — wrongfully, perhaps — that nativity and education levels are equal across all groups. Yet, there is clear evidence that neither is the case across race: Blacks and Latinos often have reduced access to high-quality education, whereas Asian Americans are more frequently foreign-born and have better access to higher education than other minorities.
When one compares unemployment rates between Whites and Asians of similar educational achievement, we suddenly find that Asian Americans — like members of other racial groups — have a far higher unemployment rate.
Asian Americans have the Highest Rates of Long-Term Unemployment
But, perhaps most relevant to the current debates in Congress are rates of chronic unemployment in the Asian American community; specifically: the length of time it takes for an unemployed Asian American to re-enter the workforce. It is these long-term unemployed Americans who are currently facing loss of federal benefits.
It turns out that, despite the generally high educational attainment of Asian Americans, Asian Americans are disproportionately impacted by chronic unemployment. Like African American jobseekers, roughly half of unemployed Asian Americans are struggling with long-term unemployment.
This trend has continued for the last 5 years, and appears to have been rising more steeply than with other groups.
And this trend of disproportionately high long-term unemployment among Asian Americans rises with age.
This results in the average unemployed Asian American spending 27.7 weeks — or nearly 8 months — looking for a job before re-entering the workforce. That’s 8 months when federal benefits — like those currently being cut by Congressional Republicans — are critical for supporting these unemployed Asian Americans and their families.
You might be wondering why Asian Americans suffer such dramatically high rates of long-term unemployment? Marlene Kim, a professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, whose work is strongly represented in this post discusses the potential causes. Her discussion is fascinating to read, and she concludes that the high rates of long-term unemployment arises as a combination of Asian American nativity, geography (i.e. disproportionately living in states with high joblessness), and racial bias. On this latter point, she writes:
Racial bias may also help explain these disparities in unemployment rates. Research finds discrimination at the top and a glass ceiling; in other words, Asian Americans are seen as technically competent and good workers, but not as leaders meriting the corner office (Kim 2010; Sakamoto and Furuichi 2002). The result is that even among those born in the United States, Asian Americans with higher education levels have higher unemployment rates than similarly educated whites. In addition, implicit bias experiments find that Asian Americans are perceived as foreigners, since most Asian Americans are indeed immigrants. Thus, it is likely that less-educated Asian Americans are more able to obtain lower-paid jobs—jobs deemed appropriate for immigrants. This could explain why, overall, Asian Americans with lower education levels have lower unemployment rates than similarly educated whites. At the same time, perceptions that Asian Americans are foreign born and thus better suited to lower-paid work could make it more difficult for highly educated Asian Americans to find higher-paid jobs and advance into leadership positions.
Asian American Women are Disproportionately Affected by Poverty vs. Asian American Men
I recently wrote an article demonstrating higher levels of unemployment for Asian American women in STEM. In it, not only did I argue an achievement gap for Asian American women in research fields, but I also alluded to high rates of unemployment and underemployment for Asian American women in general.
While Asian American men still maintain a slightly higher rate of unemployment compared to Asian American women, the jobless rate for men has remained largely constant over the last few years whereas the jobless rate for women has continued to rise steadily. Between 2008-2011, the unemployment rate for Asian American women has nearly doubled (going from 4.9% to 8.5%); the DOL reports that (like Asian American men) ~50% of Asian American women are battling long-term unemployment. Moreover, Asian American women are more likely to be working in the service industry than our male counterparts, resulting in 5.4% of Asian American women working below minimum wage and 12.3% of Asian American women living in poverty.
Given these higher rates of existing poverty, one can imagine the greater impact of federal benefit dollars among Asian American families supported by Asian American women.
Currently, Congressional Republicans are advocating the elimination of federal benefits paid to jobless Americans past 26 weeks of unemployment. The Washington Post reports that this means a loss of on average $300/week of benefits to support long-term unemployed Americans.
The data presented above clearly indicate that this will disproportionately affect nearly 50% of unemployed Asian and African Americans. Meanwhile, there is virtually no evidence that ending these benefits will help unemployed Americans — Asian or otherwise — find a job more quickly. In effect, cutting federal benefits for long-term unemployed Americans is cutting a lifeline critical for the survival of millions of job-seekers, including many unemployed Asian Americans and African Americans.
Asian Americans have had a long history of working at the forefront of labor rights. Asian Americans should be front-and-center of this debate, advocating in favour of continued federal benefits for the long-term unemployed.
Act Now! Currently, Congressional Democrats and Republicans are debating a temporary extension of federal programs to benefit America’s long-term unemployed. Yesterday, Senate Republicans voted to advance a bill to extend these benefits, however the bill faces major obstacles passing in both the Senate and the House, due primarily to Republican resistance.
You can do your part by contacting your local Congressional representatives and asking them to support federal benefits for the long-term unemployed. Find your local House and Senate representative here.