South Asian youth: Critical mass and Urgent needs

South Asian youth: Critical mass and Urgent needs

February 1, 2014

Last month South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) released the first policy report on South Asian poverty in New York City, New York City South Asian youth: critical mass, urgent needs. The report provides original census data analysis of our community and the numbers are striking.


First, South Asian youth in New York City have reached a critical mass.  Over the past decade, the City’s overall youth population (under age 20) declined while the South Asian youth population grew by over 23%. There are now more than 100,000 South Asian youth living in the five boroughs.


Second, South Asian youth are a presence citywide.  25 of the city’s 59 Community Districts (CDs) are home to at least 1,000 South Asian youth. More than half the city’s South Asian youth live in Queens – where one-in-eight youth is South Asian – but there are also large and rapidly growing populations in Brooklyn and the Bronx.


Third, poverty is a major challenge.  Almost 55% of South Asian youth live in families at or below 200% of the federal poverty level of about $47,000 for a family of four, versus 51% for all City youth. This means that over half of our South Asian youth in the city lack the opportunities to thrive.


Poverty often masks other hardships that South Asian youth face which can create obstacles to long-term success. For instance, many South Asian parents confront language barriers and a lack of familiarity with the American school system. Poor information about how to navigate a complicated and increasingly choice-based school system, coupled with unconscious negative parental attitudes make South Asian youth vulnerable to socio-emotional setbacks, bad decisions, and disengagement in school.   Poor school resources, unsafe school environments, and limited formal and informal community infrastructure also contribute to guidance deficiencies and long-term barriers to achievement.


When we began 17 years ago, SAYA! served a small number of youth only at our center in Elmhurst, Queens.  Today we serve 1,800 youth annually in 14 sites across multiple boroughs. In the past academic year, we secured over $600,000 of financial aid for high school seniors, many of them the first in their families to attend college. 98% of our youth graduated from high school and were accepted into college, notably higher than the New York City average high school graduation rate of 60%.

Though we celebrate our measurable accomplishments, we are motivated to help the youth we serve achieve the more intangible aspects of success. We know that when youth feel a sense of belonging, they expand their horizons and reach their full potential.


SAYA! has come a long way but our work is just starting. Recognizing that school, family, and community-based obstacles exist is the first step to mitigating the cycle of poverty among South Asians. We are at a unique moment in our community’s history.  If these youth with limited resources – our next generation – are trapped by their circumstances, we could easily fall into an inter-generational cycle of poverty.


This cycle can be avoided. By providing South Asian youth with opportunities to grow, we have been preventing that cycle of poverty for many but not yet for all.  The time to do so is now and the stakes are high if we fail. I believe the community shares a common vision of success for South Asian youth. The time is now for us to achieve this vision.