The leads of the new romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” are precisely what you might expect, based on the title: picture-perfect images of the immigrant success story. Viewers might even get the impression from watching the film that every Asian lives a charmed life.
Nick Young (played by Henry Golding) and Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) are young, high-achieving professors at New York University. Nick is the scion of a spectacularly wealthy family from Singapore, while Rachel shared a hardscrabble life with her mother, a Chinese immigrant, before becoming a star economist.
But that is not a full picture of the Asian-American experience. Asian-Americans are now the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the country, displacing African-Americans, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of United States Census Bureau data. The chart below shows that income inequality among Asian-Americans has nearly doubled from 1970 to 2016.
While rich Asians have become the highest-earning group in the nation, income growth among poor Asians has largely stagnated. This trend mirrors that of other racial groups, though income inequality has accelerated fastest among Asians. By 2016, Asians in the top 10th of income distribution earned about $120,000 more than those in the bottom 10th. Disparities among Asian-Americans are primarily driven by the different levels of education, skills and English-language proficiency among the many groups that make up the diaspora. People from India and China have higher incomes than those from Southeast Asia because they have higher levels of education on average.
For example, three-fourths of Taiwanese and Indians in America have a bachelor’s degree or higher, said Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Southeast Asian groups from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, however, lag well behind the average for other Asian-Americans.
Jonathan Lee, 30, a Chinese-American who lives in New York and works as a senior designer at Etsy, and his sister, Jessica, are both college graduates, unlike their parents. “My father told us stories of sleeping on an ironing board at his father’s laundromat,” Mr. Lee said. “My mother came here when she was 19 and took night classes at F.I.T. to become a pattern maker. My father spent his career at ConEd. Now they own a home.”
Asian immigrants make up a less monolithic group than they once did. In 1970, Asian immigrants came mostly from East Asia, but South Asian immigrants are fueling the growth that makes Asian-Americans the fastest-expanding group in the country, said Dr. Lee, the Columbia University sociologist. Asian-Americans, who accounted for less than 1 percent of the population in 1970, are up to 6 percent today. South Asians and Southeast Asians together now outnumber East Asians. Family-sponsored migration remains the largest source of Asian immigration.
Inequality is elastic, of course, adjusting over time because of fluctuating waves of immigration, as seen among the 10 most populous Asian immigrant groups in the United States.