Indian-Americans are generally considered one of the most affluent ethnic communities in the United States, but statistics like that tend to obscure a grimmer reality: 6.5% of all Indian-American households live below the poverty line, according to a new report titled ‘A Study of Poverty in the Indian American Population’.
And Covid-19 is likely to make things much worse.
“Researchers predict the COVID-19 pandemic and recession will push thousands more families into the ranks of the impoverished, potentially driving the poverty rate as high as 10.1 percent,” according to the report, by Devesh Kapur, Director of Asia Programs at Johns Hopkins University, and Jashan Bajwa, a graduate student at the university.
According to the report by Kapur and Bajwa, the median household income for Indians in the US, at around $120,000, is double that of US households. Over 70% of the Indian-American community has a college degree, and over half speak English “very well” and own a house.
But the report explores the phenomenon of the ‘invisible’ Indian-American — those who are missed when statistics point to the wealth and success of the community. “Who are they? Where do they live? And what are their principal sources of economic vulnerability?” the researchers ask.
Kapur and Bajwa find that the Indian-American populace is one of the most economically successful groups, but “the aggregate numbers mask the considerable number in the community with low incomes and precarious economic circumstances.”
Compared to other Americans in poverty, impoverished Indians in America are more likely to be men and less likely to be citizens, the report finds. They’re more likely to speak Bengali or Punjabi when compared to Indian-Americans overall. And most importantly, the coronavirus crisis could trigger an aggressive expansion of the ranks of impoverished Indians in the US.
There are at least 4.2 million people of Indian origin in the US. At least as many as 2,52,000 among them are poor.
The report by Kapur and Bajwa reveals significant information about this segment of the diaspora. More than three-fourths of this group – 76% – live in rented accommodation, with most people paying rent in cash, and at least 15% don’t have health insurance. Among those who do have insurance, 56% are privately insured, “usually an expensive proposition”, note the researchers.
An estimate from the Pew Research Center in 2017 pegged the number of undocumented Indians – who are more likely to be below the poverty line – in the country at 5,25,000, roughly 4% of all the unauthorised residents in the US. These are concentrated largely in states such as New Jersey, California, New York, and Texas, Kapur and Bajwa find.
Among vulnerable Indian-American households just above the poverty line, about 40% are likely to have witnessed job losses during Covid-19. “These households are likely to have slipped below the poverty line,” the report states.
If the economic downturn persists, the researchers say, Indian-Americans’ poverty rate could end up swelling from 6.5% to 10.2% – almost as high as the US poverty rate, estimated at 11.8% at large.
The study pointed to a few details on which the Indian-American population below the poverty rate differs from what we know about the poor in the US.
In general, women across the US tend to have higher rates of poverty than men. But this trend is reversed among Indian-Americans – more men (53%) are poor than women (47%).
Also, 36% of poor Indians live in married-couple households, and poverty in “male-headed” households is notably higher (28%) than it is within the overall US population (19%).
Interestingly, not as many Indian-American households use food stamps, a federal nutrition programme by the US Department of Agriculture that hundreds of thousands of Americans rely on. While at least 43% of American households use food stamps, only around 17% of the impoverished Indian-American households use this Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
More than half of the impoverished live in just five states – New York, California, Texas, Illinois, and New Jersey. This is to be expected, since these states also account for over half of the total Indian American population. Within these states, however, the distribution of poor and rich Indian-Americans significantly varies.
In his book, The Other One Percent: Indians in America, published in 2017, Kapur and co-authors Sanjoy Chakravorty and Nirvikar Singh found that the distribution of Indian-Americans is extremely socio-economically polarised, diverging greatly on axes of income, education, and jobs.
“In Glen Cove/Oyster Bay, communities on Long Island in the New York metropolitan region,” wrote the authors, “the average family income of the 1,800-odd India-born population was about $273,000. At the same time, in a community in Fresno, California, the average family income of the 3,200-odd India-born was under $24,000, an eleven-fold difference…”
In terms of occupation and industry, too, there are huge differences at the state and cluster levels. California and New Jersey had a huge population of Indians doing computer-sector work, while in New York and Illinois, those of Indian descent were found to specialise in healthcare. Meanwhile, in New York City, and specifically Queens, Indian-born taxi drivers and medical-sector workers were predominant.
In general, while Indian Americans form the richest community in the US, the inequality, sometimes within close proximity, is equally striking.
“Especially notable was a stretch in California—along Highway 99 between the San Francisco Bay area and Southern California… This stretch—called the Central Valley—had sizable India-born communities… with low levels of educational attainment. At the same time, in Silicon Valley, the settlements of Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Cupertino, Los Altos, San Mateo, Walnut Creek, and parts of San Jose had thousands of India-born advanced-degree holders.”
More interesting trends exist in Indians’ language-income correlation. English and Hindi are the two most common languages spoken among Indians in the country, but relative to their share of the population, poverty is highest among Bengali and Punjabi speakers, the report shows.
Another finding in The Other One Percent explains, to an extent, why this may be so.
Punjabis, who are concentrated in California and New York, largely specialise in transportation and retail trade. Gujaratis in New Jersey and Illinois work extensively in retail trade and entertainment (hotels and restaurants). Telugus in Virginia are highly concentrated in the computer sector, while Bengalis are disproportionately employed in the education sector.
Where Indian communities set up linguistic enclaves in the US, the poorest Indians may end up being concentrated in jobs that pay the lowest.
Another stark revelation in the report is that an overwhelming number of Indian-Americans work in high-risk industries, which have been particularly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. These industries include mining, general stores, air and rail transportation, gasoline stations, and childcare services.
This Indian American group – particularly those without citizenship – is especially vulnerable since they have reduced access to government programs, combined with increased visa and deportation anxieties.
As many as 3,80,813 Indian American workers – out of the US workforce of roughly 16,15,15,726 – or 17%, are employed in high-risk industries, and were especially hard hit by the pandemic, the report found. Within this group, 14% were between the ages of 16 and 24.
That means that around a quarter of already poor households are likely to have lost their principal source of income during the Covid-19 period, Kapur concludes. “These households are the most desperately in need of assistance,” it states.