Last semester was my first time filing my own taxes, and during a lunch break with my friend, as we discussed the mind-numbing flurry of tax season he brought up that his parents wrote off his college tuition as an investment. “I guess I’m their investment for the future.”
At the time it felt like a funny anecdote but upon deeper reflection, I realized that it was the same way for me and other immigrant children. For many in the Chinese immigrant community, investment plans like 401k’s and IRA’s are foreign concepts, forcing immigrants to rely on their children upon retirement. While this may be an all too common practice, the lack of sufficient retirement plans in the Asian community is far from a personal choice. Instead, it’s an issue perpetuated by a lack of labor protections and sufficient aging infrastructures for immigrants; these shortcomings often snowball into a severe problem of poverty.
Although the model minority myth has painted Asian immigrants as the poster children for the American dream of having achieved financial stability, the reality is quite the opposite. In New York City, over the past decade, senior demographics have jumped twenty-six percent, making up almost half a million people, despite only a three percent increase in the state’s overall population. Such drastic demographic booms become a problem for those in the immigrant community who have little aging resources to turn to when they can no longer participate in the workforce. This rings especially true for Asian elders who make up the second-largest senior population living in poverty, with nearly 1 in every 4 seniors living below the poverty line. The number one senior population most at risk for poverty are Latino seniors with a 26% poverty rate who face much of the same barriers with aging resources.
Many of these seniors in poverty were immigrants who came to America during the late 80s and 90s and now finds themselves aging out of the workforce. For these immigrants, the restaurant and food service industry became a lifeline when other sources of labor refused to hire those with little English proficiency. This fact remains even in the present day, where over sixty percent of all restaurant workers in NYC are immigrants ; this number is even higher, reaching seventy to ninety percent, in sixteen NYC neighborhoods. Although the restaurant industry was what allowed immigrants to secure work and a stable paycheck, most of their wages were below the state’s minimum wage and paid off the books. This meant that for most immigrants, wages were insufficient for a personal retirement plan. Since these unofficial earnings were never taxed or recorded, retiring restaurant workers were also prevented from securing social security benefits. Meanwhile, for Asian seniors who do qualify for social security benefits, language barriers discourage them from applying. In NYC, where 94 percent of Korean seniors and 92 percent of Chinese seniors have limited English proficiency, the application process for social security goes from confusing to nearly impossible.
“While 23 percent of the older population have no Social Security income, 39 percent of Chinese American seniors and 35 percent of Korean seniors in New York City have no Social Security income.”
- Victoria Tran, “Poverty, Vulnerability, and the Safety Net”
Faced with the paradox of having to remain in the workforce and jobs refusing to hire senior applicants, many Asian elders living in poverty have turned to a practice known as “canning.” Across urban cities, these canners collect plastic and glass bottles from the streets and public trash cans, redeeming them for 5 to 10 cents per bottle. However, canning typically fails to yield enough profit to meet the cost of living and can be damaging to the health of elderly canners. Considering that each can or bottle weighs around the size of a coin, elderly canners often have to push large carts filled with recyclables where 200 cans will only yield $10. While canning provides the only source of income for many elders, it’s far from a solution and is a symptom of a growing problem.
Despite this issue lingering and expanding over the past two decades, senior poverty is often left out of political agendas or trending issues and it’s easy to see why. The stigma surrounding not only poverty but aging creates an environment that allows the elderly to fall through the cracks of the system, rendering the problem invisible. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.
Proposals like increased public housing for seniors, more translation services, and less stringent social security requirements are all possible changes that could help improve living conditions for one of America’s fastest-growing demographics. However, while many of the solutions rest in government infrastructure, New York State’s budget for the Office of Aging has actually decreased forty percent per senior since the year 2000 and NYC’s own Department For the Aging lost 15 million dollars worth of promised funds in 2021. Although efforts have been made in recent months to rectify this lack of funding with the Department For the Aging to receive an expected 27.6 million dollar increase for 2022, this number is merely a small fraction of the 10 billion dollar budget increase in the city’s annual spending.
Aging is something that happens to everyone, but for some, it’s a far more challenging and threatening process of life. In cases like these, simply “taking care of the elderly” is not enough, and there has to be sufficient infrastructure built in place so immigrants can age with dignity and security.
For More Information on Aging and Poverty:
What Aging Means for Immigrant New Yorkers | Marlene Peralta
Asian American seniors are often left out of the national conversation on poverty | Victoria Tran
A Snapshot of Poverty Among Older NYers Shows Pockets of Deep Need | Angely Mercado and Roshan Abraham
“Model Minority” myth hides the economic realities of many Asian Americans | Margaret Simms