Asian Americans Face Disproportionate Economic Insecurity Amid Pandemic, And Racism Plays A Role

The storefront of Tasty Dining in San Gabriel, which saw business drop in the early days of the pandemic. (Caroline Champlin/LAist)

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UCLA economist Paul Ong had heard about Asian American businesses dealing with discrimination and harrassment from customers since the early days of the pandemic. He'd watched President Donald Trump call COVID-19 the "China virus" and "kung flu."

"That affected people's perspective. So what we started seeing is people harassing Asians....blaming them for the pandemic," Ong said. "That also seemed to translate into an informal boycott of Asian restaurants — Chinese restaurants in particular."

Ong wanted to know how anti-Asian rhetoric was changing people's lives on a bigger scale.

So he and a team of researchers looked into the data.

Asian Americans working in hospitality, retail and service jobs are facing unemployment at higher rates than whites, according to a new UCLA study. (Paul Ong and Donald Mar/CPS)

Using unemployment claims, the Current Population Survey, and data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Ong's team determined that Asians and whites started out on similar financial footing before the pandemic — but between February and April, according to his research, Asian American joblessness jumped ahead by 5%.

Asians working in services like hair salons and auto-repair shops, for example, faced 20% more unemployment than white people in that sector. Compared with the rest of the California labor force, Asian Americans with a high school education only filed almost 50% more unemployed claims than whites with the same educational level.

Asian Americans with a high school education or less are filing almost 50% more unemployment claims compared to white people with the same level of education. (Paul Ong and Donald Mar/DOLETA and California Policy Lab)

Those working jobs in hospitality, retail and service industries were especially hard-hit.

"It's where they work, how they work, but on top of that it's also the anti-Asian American sentiments," Ong said.

It's difficult to document discrimination in a strictly scientific way, Ong acknowledged. But his study does highlight a Pew survey reporting that "about 3 in 10 Asian adults (31%) say they have been subject to slurs or jokes because of their race or ethnicity since the outbreak began, compared with 21% of Black adults, 15% of Hispanic adults and 8% of white adults."

Ong also points out that San Francisco State University recorded more than 800 COVID-related hate incidents targeting Asian Americans — primarily in the workplace.

"We're at least getting evidence that in fact, it's not somebody's imagination," Ong said.

Ong said he believes the federal government should step in to discourage discrimination and feels disapointed by political leadership so far. In terms of policy recommendations, Ong said it would be helpful for federal unemployment insurance to be extended.

He also recommends more Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans be distributed to Asian-owned businesses, because based on preliminary research he's done, the Asian American community has been left behind in terms of those resources as well.