Asian Immigrants Still Climbing in America

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Posted on: April 2, 2014


Publication in the U.S. this year of a book, The Triple Package, has opened a door for recognition of an obvious but impolite truth: Asian immigrants to America constitute one of the most amazing economic and social success stories of modern times.

It’s impolite to recognize this general fact because of sensitivity that this indicts other groups that have not kept pace. Indeed, many Asian-Americans themselves bridle at being a “model minority” and may point out that any number in their ranks do lag. (Indeed it’s wrong to idealize decades of struggle for early arrivals, as noted in works like Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America.) The Triple Package’s husband-and-wife authors from Yale Law School, Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua, were careful to single out other groups besides Asians, although Chua, who earlier published Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about Chinese parenting, can’t escape the obvious results.

What’s apparent, and what Americans as well as Asians should be celebrating, is that millions of people could uproot themselves from thousands of miles away, come to a place while often without money or language skills, and within one or two generations gain a firm foothold in the upper middle class. In terms of their numbers relative to the size of the U.S. at the time, this phenomenon compares only with that of the eastern European Jews who arrived roughly a century before.

For the earlier period, economic history from Thomas Sowell provides a good picture. In the current instance, U.S. Census surveys bear out that among 4.7 million “Asian” households there is a steady upward movement in income category through the 2012 data. And this is not just a maturation factor–the younger cohorts are showing faster ascents year by year. That’s consistent with attainment of higher scholastic and social status. Business formations and earnings from them also speak to this.

These data aren’t as complete as you’d like and East Asian and South Asian immigrants often get lumped together. But their experiences appear similar.

 Some, including the Triple Package authors, suspect that outperformance is not carrying into the third generation of Asian immigrants. Data are even sketchier about that. It’s true that many of the source nations for this influx have grown richer, which theoretically would reduce the flow of hungry talent. But if business opportunities back in Asia have improved, that may only further enhance the prospects for immigrants who can bridge two worlds.

In a world of so many woes, desperate migrations among them, this is one enormously joyous outcome.