A new study by Boston researchers has found that many lower-income Asian Americans, often underrepresented in studies of COVID-19, were hit hard by the pandemic and suffered a triple threat of health risks, financial stress, and racism.
The report, from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Boston, focused on lower-income Asian Americans in Greater Boston. The study concluded that those communities faced significant burdens similar to those shouldered by low-income Black, Hispanic, and immigrant communities.
“Those in Chinatown or the working communities in Malden and Quincy are often invisible,” said Carolyn Wong, a political scientist at the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass.
Wong said she embarked on research to help widen the public’s perception of Asian Americans, who are often stalked by a “model minority myth.”
“The impression that policy makers and a lot of the public have is just looking at the better off [Asian Americans],” Wong said.
“The movies, TV, a lot of media images, or ideas people have about how well off Asians are, come from the successful scientists and medical folks, and those are the ones who are more prominent in the public’s mind,” she said.
Wong and her UMass coauthor, Ziting Kuang, surveyed 192 mostly low- and middle-income Asian Americans in 2020 and early 2021 in Greater Boston and found that roughly 75 percent reported working jobs that placed them at higher risk for COVID, and about 40 percent reported feeling very or extremely worried about being able to pay their rent or mortgage.
A third said they were very or extremely afraid they would run out of food because of a lack of money.
About one in five reported being threatened or harassed, and more than half said they were treated with less courtesy and respect because of their race.
An earlier study by other colleagues at UMass and Northeastern University randomly surveyed about 1,600 people in Boston, including about 145 Asian Americans, on their pandemic experiences. But the survey was in English and Spanish only — no Asian dialects — and included many who were college graduates or with advanced schooling, and did not include many Asian American respondents who are low-income.
In that larger survey, slightly more than two-thirds of respondents reported they were in excellent or very good health, as opposed to just 51 percent of lower-income respondents in the more recent survey. And fewer than half in the survey of more wealthy, educated Asian Americans said they worked in professions that required interaction with the public, placing them at less risk during the first year of the pandemic.
Wong and Kuang felt that missed the experiences of a large swath of lower-income, more poorly educated Asian Americans in the region. That prompted their more recent survey of Asian Americans in Greater Boston, using community groups to contact hard-to-reach enclaves and offering the survey in English, Chinese, and Vietnamese. It was not a random sampling.
“We should not look at just ethnicity but at the class makeup of any group,” said Suzanne Lee, president emeritus of the Chinese Progressive Association and a longtime Boston community leader.
Lee, who emigrated from China in the 1960s and lives in Chinatown, said many of the people who work in small businesses and restaurants in her community are older, or offspring of lower-income Asian Americans, and not the younger, newer wave of immigrants from India or China, many of whom live in the suburbs and work in high-tech, medical, or research professions.
The large gap in experiences the UMass researchers found between wealthy and low-income Asian Americans mirrors the findings of a 2018 Pew Research Center report that found income inequality rising most rapidly among that group. It found that income distribution among Asian Americans transformed from being one of the most equal to being the most unequal among the United States’ major racial and ethnic groups.
Income inequality, the report found, is the greatest among Asian Americans, displacing Black people as the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the country.
But the new UMass report did find some common ground among rich and poor Asian Americans: More than two-thirds of those surveyed reported donning masks very early in the pandemic — earlier than Black, Latino, or white people did. And about 5 percent of both groups of Asian Americans reported COVID infections in the first year of the pandemic, roughly half the percentage reported by Black, Latino, and white respondents.
Lee said those findings ring true to what she still sees every day around her in Chinatown.
“Asian people, in general, are more used to wearing masks,” she said.
Lee said many Asian immigrants come from polluted areas where wearing masks is considered normal.
“People wear masks to protect themselves, so in that way it kind of helped they were the first to mask up and protect themselves,” she said.
Another vestige of the pandemic that has not disappeared, Lee said, is hateful acts directed at Asian people. During the first year of the pandemic, former president Donald Trump often and very publicly referred to COVID as the “Chinese virus,” which some researchers have linked to a rise in anti-Asian behavior in the United States.
Lee said that while dramatic instances of Asian American people being randomly attacked on the street may have subsided, everyday bullying and harassment away from the public’s eye have not.
“Once that idea [of the Chinese virus] gets into people’s head, it’s hard to get it out. It takes a lot longer, a lot more intentional work,” she said.
“This idea that just because you don’t have a president anymore that says that, that some other people won’t say that anymore, we are fooling ourselves,” she said. “Those things are ingrained.”