February 22, 2013


The Indian American (or Asian Indian as defined by the US Census) population in 2010 stood at 3.2 million, a 68 percent increase from 1.9 million in 2000. Of this about 2.9 million were solely of Indian heritage and the remaining 0.3 million odd of mixed heritage.  While the high education attainments, incomes and entrepreneurial achievements of Indian-Americans are much commented upon (and celebrated), there is less attention to those members of the community who have not been as fortunate.


It is certainly the case that Indian-American adults are less likely to be poor whether compared to Asian Americans or U.S. adults overall.  According to data from a recent report by Pew, the share of adult Indian Americans who live in poverty is 9 percent, lower than the shares of all Asian Americans (12%) and of the U.S. population overall (13%).


Poverty numbers need to be interpreted carefully since income data can either be based on personal income or on household income; some poverty data is based on working-age adults while other data focuses on children living in poverty; sometimes the data is on Indian-born and sometimes on Indian origin.


Whether an individual falls below the official “poverty line” depends not only on total household income but also on number of members in the household, the number of children and the age profile of adults.  Poverty in low-income households is also much more susceptible to “shocks”, such as loss of jobs or a health-related event in the absence of medical insurance. Data from the American Community Survey in 2008 reveal that 13.4 percent of Indian immigrants did not have health insurance in 2008—much lower than immigrants overall (32.9 percent) but slightly higher than among the native born (12.9 percent).  In the absence of health insurance a health-related shock to such individuals can have serious long-term consequences on their ability to come out of poverty.


Who are the Indian-American Poor?

In general poorer immigrants are those with less education, limited English proficiency and the manner in which they arrived in the country. About one out of eight adult Indian Americans has less than a high school education. However, some of them are old-age parents living with their high income children and therefore not living in poor households.  Three of every ten Indian immigrants in 2008 were limited English proficient—to the extent that they are of working-age, their linguistic isolation handicaps their ability to participate fully in labor markets and hence their incomes are likely to be lower.

The manner in which immigrants arrive into the United States has considerable effects on their incomes. In 2009, three out of five Indian immigrants receiving lawful permanent residence (LPR) were admitted as family-based immigrants (either as the immediate relatives of US citizens or as family-sponsored immigrants) while more than a third obtained LPR status as work-based immigrants or their family members. The poor are more likely to be from the former than the latter.

According to statistical estimates by the Office of Immigration Statistics, the estimated number of unauthorized immigrants from India in 2011 was 240,000 (double the estimated numbers in 2000), roughly 2 percent of all unauthorized immigrants in the United States. This is about 7.5 percent of the Indian American population. Given their limited access to jobs and government benefits, they are likely to constitute a disproportionate number of the poorer members of the community.


Where do they live?

There is a strong spatial dimension to poverty in the United States. Hence it is not surprising that this is the case with Indian Americans as well. The lowest average personal incomes of Indian-born are in Yuba county. However, Queens based India-born have the lowest average household incomes. The likely reason is that more Queens-based residents are single (men) – cab drivers, restaurant workers and the like – while in Yuba they are in farming-related occupations and live within larger households with more than one income.


What needs to be done

While there is much that the community can do, interventions targeting specific vulnerable groups are more like to succeed. The needs of children in poor households are different from youth growing up in poor neighborhoods with weak public schools, while those in the adult-age working population with limited skills or an unemployed single parent with children or senior citizens with weak support systems, all require different types of assistance to help them address their predicament. The concentration of poor Indian Americans in certain counties and zip codes, makes it at least somewhat easier to identify where to spatially locate community support services (for example SAYA – the South Asia Youth Action –that served underprivileged youth of South Asian origin in Queens). But in all cases the community will have to significantly step up its philanthropic support for non-profits serving these vulnerable groups.