The diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander experiences

Digging into the numbers shows challenges and importance of equity data

The central Puget Sound region has about 600,000 people who identify as Asian Alone and more than 35,000 people who identify as Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Alone, as we discovered last year during Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month. "Alone" means a member of only one racial group.

Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander groups represent a wide variety of heritages in the region.

PSRC has made racial equity a top priority. Consequently, this year for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month we dug deeper into how Asian and Pacific Islander experiences vary based on their heritage and where they live in the region.

Census data can tell one story about people’s lives, but underneath lies a wide variety of individual experiences. Broad data about race and ethnicity can hide what life is like for different people.

Data analysis for this post showed that Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander residents experience significantly more disadvantages than other racial groups, including some Asian groups.

Asian Alone workers overall have the region’s highest median personal earnings at $53,000 annually. On the other hand, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Alone workers have some of the lowest median earnings at $32,000.

How do median earnings vary across different groups of Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander workers?

Workers in the region who identify as Burmese, Other Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, Nepalese, Fijian, Marshallese and Hmong have median earnings of less than $30,000 per year. On the other end of the spectrum, Asian Indian workers have median earnings of over $97,000 per year.

As a broad group, Asian Alone residents have some of the highest earnings in the region, as well as some of the highest education levels, with 56% of adults over 25 having obtained a bachelor’s degree. However, failing to disaggregate this data hides the experience of Pacific Islanders. Only 11% of Pacific Islander adults over 25 have a bachelor’s degree.

PSRC also looked at how educational levels vary across the region for different racial groups.

The map below shows that the share of Asian Alone adults over 25 with a bachelor’s degree or higher varies widely across the region.

Over 60% of Asian Alone adults in King County have a bachelor’s degree, as compared to 30% of Asian Alone adults in Pierce County.

Throughout the region, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders tend to have lower levels of education, with about 10% of adults obtaining a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Share of Asian Alone Adults With a Bachelor's Degree or Higher

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2015-2019, Table C15002D
Note: Map shows the top Asian Alone groups by Census tract for those tracts with more than 200 people in the group. Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders were not included as their sample sizes were too small.

 

The map below shows the predominant Asian ethnic groups around the region.

Comparing it to the map above, you can see that areas of King County with larger concentrations of higher ed degrees match up with tracts that have larger Asian Indian and Chinese populations. Both of these groups have high educational attainment rates. They also have some of the highest earnings in the region, as shown in the chart above.

Groups with lower median earnings—such as Filipino, Vietnamese, Hmong and Cambodian—are more heavily clustered in Pierce County.

Asian Alone Ethnic Groups by Census Tract

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2015-2019, Table B02015
Note: Map shows the top Asian Alone groups by Census tract for those tracts with more than 200 people in the group. Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders were not included as their sample sizes were too small.

 

These results highlight that the Asian population in the Puget Sound region is extremely diverse. This diversity is often informed by each population’s country of origin and length of time in the U.S. Lower-income Asian groups including many refugee communities and immigrant populations arriving without skills-based visas are likely to experience barriers and limited access to opportunity at levels similar to other marginalized communities of color.

Where Asian, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander residents make their home as a result of these barriers can have a huge impact on the trajectory of their lives, something PSRC has explored in its Opportunity Mapping work.

When planning for racial equity, we need to consider the diversity of where people live and where they come from and look beneath the surface of regional medians and averages.