Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Children Are Not a Monolith
Disaggregating Data to Debunk the “Model Minority” Myth
Asian American (AA) and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) children are too often viewed as a monolithic group. They are regularly labeled as a single block, “Asian and Pacific Islander,” despite the significant differences between Asians and Pacific Islanders and the extreme heterogeneity of these populations. While the U.S. Census Bureau provides data on AA children, with origins in more than 20 countries or ethnic groups in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, there are nearly 50 countries in Asia and even more ethnic groups. Combining dozens of nationalities and ethnicities into one data point masks the challenges faced by a diverse set of identities and makes effectively meeting the needs of these children nearly impossible. To unmask the disparities in childhood well-being among these groups, policymakers and data providers must take action to disaggregate data on AA and NHPI children.
Understanding Who Is “Asian American” and “Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander”
Though the term “Asian American” is commonly used to encompass all Americans of Asian descent, many Asian Americans prefer more specific labels such as “Korean American” or “Vietnamese American.” The Census Bureau provides data on selected Asian alone groups:
The Census also provides data on select groups within the “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander” category, including those identifying as:
- Samoan; and
- Native Hawaiian.
But this is not a comprehensive list, as individuals in this diverse group may also identify as (among others):
- Papua New Guinean;
- Tokelauan; and
Census data captures these groups as “Other Polynesian,” “Other Micronesian,” “Other Melanesian” and “Other Pacific Islander.” Like Asian Americans, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations are widely heterogeneous.
Another way to understand the diversity of these populations is through local organizations that directly interact with them. For instance, community-based organizations across the country that work with AAs, NHPIs have reported serving 56 different ethnic groups in 75 different languages according to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.
Each of these nationalities and ethnic groups represents distinct cultures, histories, experiences and languages, adding to the depth and strength of American society. To be clear, when talking about these groups, we are largely talking about U.S. citizens. Nearly 9 in 10 (86%) individuals who identify as NHPI are U.S. citizens, and over 7 in 10 (73%) of those who identify as Asian are U.S. citizens, either by birth or naturalization, according to the 2020 Census. Among the children of these individuals, the share who are citizens is likely even higher. In fact, fully 90% of all children of immigrants are U.S. citizens. (See our post Who Are Children in Immigrant Families?) Of course, many children of those who identify as Asian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander are not children of immigrants but children of U.S.-born parents.
Debunking the “Model Minority” Myth
The label “model minority” has been used for decades. It perpetuates a detrimental stereotype that AAs and NHPIs are more academically and financially high achieving than other racial and ethnic groups. It is inaccurate, simplistic and insulting to characterize all of these diverse populations in a one-dimensional way.
The Complex Challenges Faced by Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Kids
The model minority myth treats AAs and NHPIs as a monolith, though the experiences of these children and youth are diverse, nuanced and multifaceted. Many young people are growing up in families that have experienced traumas such as war, the aftermath of war, colonization and having to flee their countries due to persecution. These scarring experiences have generational impacts on families and can have long-term negative effects on mental health. For example, even after colonization ends — like after the Philippines gained independence from the U.S. in the mid-20th century — research has shown that the memories of colonial exploitation have lasting adverse psychological implications for oppressed populations.
Each racial or ethnic group’s history is entirely different, and each family’s experience within that history is unique. Families also vary in their ethnic–racial socialization of children. As kids grow up, they must navigate the complexity of forming their ethnic identity and their American identity. At the same time, they are forming other identities as part of adolescence, such as:
- gender identity;
- sexual orientation; and
- religious identity.
They must do this while also traversing all the usual developmental, social and educational challenges of childhood, youth and young adulthood.
As if all this weren’t already difficult, the spike in racist sentiments and anti-Asian hate crimes in recent years is another significant factor affecting these young people.
How Many Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Children Are There?
According to the latest 2022 Census estimates, there are about 4 million AA children in the United States, making up 6% of the total child population. NHPI children total 157,529, or just under 0.5% of the child population. These figures do not include children who are AA or NHPI in combination with another race or ethnicity.
Many researchers have noted that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country, increasing by 81% from 2000 to 2019. Among the nation’s total population, about 6%, or nearly 21 million people, identify as AA or NHPI according to the 2020 Census. This number jumps to more than 25 million when counting those who identify as AA or NHPI in combination with another race or ethnicity.
To determine the size of each AA and NHPI child population, the KIDS COUNT® Data Center commissioned an analysis of the latest Census Bureau population estimates for 2017–2021. As shown below, among AA groups with data, Indian American children make up the largest share of AA kids, representing more than 1 in 4 — about 1 million — children, followed by Chinese American (19%), Filipino American (12%), Vietnamese American (9%) and Korean American (6%) kids. As illustrated, many additional groups help comprise the rich diversity of AA children.
Table One: Child Population of Asian American Groups (2017–2021)
Percent of API Population
|Chinese, except Taiwanese||723,726||19.3%|
Other Asian groups
|Two or more Asian groups||187,739||5.0%|
|Total Asian Child Population||3,743,978||100%|
Note: Each group refers to that group alone rather than in combination with another racial or ethnic group, with one exception for “Two or More Asian Groups.” Source: PRB Analysis of 2017–2021 ACS PUMS 5‑year Data. Detailed racial distribution of Asian American children by selected groups.
Among NHPI groups, Native Hawaiian children make up the largest share, representing more than one-fourth of all NHPI kids. Other Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander are the next largest group, comprising a little over 1 in 4 kids. One in every 10 NHPI children are Guamanian or Chamorro American, and nearly 1 in 10 are Marshallese American. Tongan and Fijian American children make up smaller shares of NHPI kids, at 6% and 4%, respectively.
Table Two: Child Population for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Groups (2017–2021)
Percent of NHPI Child Population
|Guamanian or Chamorro||15,696||10.2%|
|Other NHPI Groups||40,870||26.6%|
Total NHPI Child Population
Notes: Each group refers to that group alone rather than in combination with another racial or ethnic group. “Other NHPI Groups” includes the following populations, each of which were below a size of 1,000. Source: PRB Analysis of 2017–2021 ACS PUMS 5‑year Data. Detailed racial distribution of Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander children by selected groups.
Aggregated Data Mask Disparities Among the AA and NHPI Populations
There is a serious dearth of available data about children disaggregated by specific AA and NHPI populations. Most indicators of child health and well-being combine all AA and NHPI children together, and these indicators generally suggest that AA and NHPI kids fare better than their peers. However, disaggregated data for these children, when available, reveal stark differences among groups. For instance, aggregated poverty data for all AA and NHPI children show that 11% were living in poverty in 2021. That’s less than the national average of 17%, about half the figure for Latino kids (23%) and almost a third of the levels for American Indian (28%) and Black (31%) children.
This would suggest that AA and NHPI children are faring far better, economically, than other children of color. However, disaggregated poverty data demonstrate large socioeconomic inequities among AA and NHPI groups.
Methodology Considerations in Disaggregating Data
It is important to acknowledge that, in some cases, data are aggregated because sample sizes are small and would lead to unreliable estimates with large margins of error. Therefore, data providers sometimes aggregate data in the interest of providing reliable figures. The Pew Research Center has discussed the particular challenges related to surveying AAs due to their smaller numbers and linguistic and cultural diversity as well as promising strategies for the future. Accurately sampling AA and NHPI populations will require concerted efforts to advance research methods.
The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, while a work in progress, does provide an adequate sample for disaggregating data by AA and NHPI population at the national level, and it is highly useful to provide data this way when possible. The National Center for Education Statistics also disaggregates data by AA and Latino or Hispanic populations. In addition, a few states have adopted, or are in the process of adopting, data disaggregation measures to help address disparities and ensure that all racial and ethnic groups are adequately supported.
In sum, disaggregated data by AA and NHPI population is critical to acknowledging and treating these diverse populations as distinct groups as well as to helping identify and address different population needs.
Key Resources with Data on Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Communities
- Center for American Progress: Education Policies Need To Address the Unique Needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities, 2022
- Pew Research Center: Asian Americans
- AAPI Data: AA and NHPI State Policy Portal and companion report, Agendas for Inclusion: Tracking State Policies Addressing the Needs of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Communities, 2022
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice: Inside the Numbers: How Immigration Shapes Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities, 2019
- Census Bureau: Asian American Data Links
Related Resources From the Annie E. Casey Foundation
- By The Numbers: A Race for Results Case Study, Using Disaggregated Data to Inform Policies, Practices and Decision-Making, 2016
- Who Are Children in Immigrant Families?, 2021
- Equity and Inclusion Resources
- KIDS COUNT Data Book
- All Data by Race and Ethnicity on the KIDS COUNT Data Center
A Note About Language
We use the term“Asian Americans” in this post to refer to both Asian immigrants and U.S. citizens of Asian descent, as the term reflects the vast majority of this population, especially among children.