Sixteen-year-old Mary Sem worries about her family. She has overheard her mother crying over memories of loved ones she lost to the Khmer Rouge. Her father and older sisters struggle to cover rent and the perpetual bills.
Her college dreams are hitched to helping them. If Mary got a degree and a good job, "my family would be able to pay the bills on time," the teen said one day after school in Long Beach. "They wouldn't need to worry about anything."
The Sems, who trace their roots to Cambodia, have little in common with the stereotype of Asian Americans as a "model minority" that is faring well economically. Poverty is less common, on average, among Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders than the Los Angeles County average, data from the U.S. Census Bureau show. But those overall statistics mask deep financial woes among some Asian Americans, a report released Wednesday shows.
For instance, one-quarter of people of Cambodian descent in Los Angeles County lived in poverty between 2006 and 2010 — exceeding other disadvantaged groups such as Latinos and African Americans, the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles found in its analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
"There's always been a recession in our community," said Lian Cheun, executive director of the nonprofit Khmer Girls in Action. "The pain has always been there. It's just not well known."
Tongan Americans have even more stunning poverty rates, the report found, with more than half estimated to be living under the poverty line countywide between 2006 and 2010. Because the community is so small, the estimates are rough and the actual poverty rate might be somewhat lower — but still far above the county average.
The new report seeks to uncover such problems, using U.S. Census Bureau and other government data to poke holes in the "model minority" stereotype and illustrate the changes sweeping such communities.
Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing group in Los Angeles County, which now has not only the biggest Chinese and Korean communities in the country, but also the largest number of people of Thai, Indonesian, Sri Lankan, Filipino, Cambodian, Burmese and Taiwanese descent, the report found.
As the recession barreled down, their growing numbers also meant more people in need. In Los Angeles County, the number of Asian Americans who were jobless jumped 89% after the downturn, according to the report. Among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, the number more than doubled.
"Tongan men — they do hard labor, construction, mainly concrete work," said Sione Tuita Tuiasoa, a member of the advisory board for the Tongan Community Service Center in Hawthorne. "As the economy turned sour, it's hard for them to make the money they used to make in the '80s and '90s."
In addition to those economic struggles, nearly 1 out of 4 Asian Americans across the county have trouble speaking English, the civil rights group calculated using Census Bureau data. The numbers are especially high for Angelenos of Korean descent as well as those with roots in Myanmar, Vietnam, Taiwan or Cambodia. In Long Beach, Sem often has to translate for her parents when they visit the doctor or go to the grocery store.
The report found ethnic Cambodian and Laotian Angelenos were also much less likely to have college degrees, compared with the county average. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders lagged behind in college completion too.
'Alisi Tulua, program manager for the advocacy group Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, said Pacific Islanders are often lumped in with Asian Americans in educational statistics, making it harder to prove that more help is needed for struggling Pacific Islander students.
When people glance only at the Asian American/Pacific Islander averages, "it looks like we're doing really well," Tulua said. "And we're not."