Asian Americans in Nevada: A rising community whose substantial achievements mask their need for support and resources

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In both Nevada and the United States, Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are the fastest growing demographic group. Asian American Pacific Islanders, who have higher levels of wealth, fueled partially by higher levels of educational attainment, are often considered the ‘Model Minority.’ However, this stereotype masks the tremendous differences within the AAPI community. If nothing else, the recent pandemic has revealed the dangers of this narrative and exposed the vulnerabilities and tremendous need among some in the AAPI community in Nevada.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian population in the United States nearly doubled between 2000 and 2019. Asian Americans now make up seven percent of the U.S. population. Here in Nevada, the growth of Asian Americans outpaced the national average. In 2000, there were roughly 92,000 Asian Americans in Nevada, accounting for only 4.6 percent of the population. By 2019, the population had increased to 254,000, reflecting a 175.5 percent increase! 

In the United States, Chinese Americans are the largest Asian origin group, accounting for 23 percent of the total Asian American population. The next two largest origin groups are Indian Americans (20 percent) and Filipinos (18 percent). In Clark County, the four largest origin groups are Filipino (52 percent), Chinese (12 percent), and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and Indian (each with 7 percent). Seven origin groups [the four mentioned and Korean (6 percent), Japanese (5 percent), and Vietnamese (4 percent)] account for more than 90 percent of the AAPI community in Clark County.  

The rising AAPI population has translated into growing political power. According to Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIA Vote), a nonpartisan civic engagement group, “there were more than 209,000 eligible AAPI voters in Nevada” as of late 2020. The AAPI community represents 9.9 percent of Nevada’s population and 11 percent of the electorate (and 61 percent live in Clark County). The growing political presence helped catapult Rochelle Nguyen, only the second AAPI woman, into the Assembly in 2018. AAPI judges serve on the municipal and state judicial benches in Clark County, Washoe County, and the Nevada Court of Appeals. (However, despite recent gains here and elsewhere, Asian American Pacific Islanders remain “the most politically underrepresented group.”)

Driving the ‘Model Minority’ narrative, Asian American Pacific Islanders tend to have higher than average academic outcomes in Nevada. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders account for 6.9 percent of students in Nevada and 7.7 percent of students in Clark County School District (CCSD). They account for 14.1 percent of Gifted and Talented Education students in CCSD (Grades 3-5).  The graduation rates in Clark County for Asian Americans (94.9 percent) and Pacific Islanders (91.2 percent) exceed those of White students (90.0 percent) and other demographic groups. 

Nationally, almost 55 percent of Asian Americans have a college graduate degree compared to the national average of 32 percent. In Nevada, as of 2018, 38 percent of Asian Americans in Nevada had a bachelor’s degree, which was the highest percentage for any group (Whites followed at 26.7 percent). Only 18 percent of Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders had obtained their bachelor’s degree. Graduation rates among Asian Americans at Nevada’s four-year universities are the highest in the state at 56.5 percent.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that “Asian American households saw the biggest income growth of any racial or ethnic group over the past decade and a half.” Asian American household income grew 8 percent, followed by Latinos with 6 percent growth, Whites with 3 percent, and African Americans with 2 percent. The median household income among Asian American households was $88,204 (over 2015-2019), which was higher than that for White households ($68,785), Latino households ($51,811), and African American households ($41,935). 

But aggregate data blur the significant variation within the AAPI community. According to the Pew Research Center, “Asian Americans were the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the U.S., with Asian Americans at the top 10th of income distribution making 10.7 times more than those at the bottom 10th.” The variation exists regardless of the issue: for example, while 72 percent of Indians in the U.S. have earned (at least) a bachelor’s degree, only 30 percent of Vietnamese and 18 percent of Cambodians have earned their bachelor’s degree. 

The pervasiveness of the ‘Model Minority’ myth and emphasis on aggregated data has unintended and even harmful consequences. The pervasive stereotype of uniform success and wealth often results in fewer resources and less funding to address significant needs of many in the AAPI community. Nonprofits who work in and serve the AAPI community note that it is often more difficult to secure funding and grants because of this narrative.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerabilities of many in the AAPI community and the significant needs of some AAPI families. COVID-19 deaths among the AAPI community in Nevada are higher than their share of the population: as of May 24. Asian American Pacific Islanders have died from COVID-19 at higher rates (11.9 percent) relative to their respective share of the population (9.9 percent). As I noted in our Communities of Color report, many Asian American Pacific Islanders were employed in front-line industries (e.g. healthcare, etc.) and industries that were most significantly affected by the pandemic. Specifically, Asian American Pacific Islanders comprise 9.9 percent of Nevada’s population, but account for 11.1 percent of retail employment, 16.4 percent of accommodations and food service employment, and 17.8 percent of health care and social assistance employment.

The economic devastation has given rise to tremendous need. According to Vida Chan Lin, founder and Board President of the Asian Community Development Council (ACDC), the top issues in the AAPI community currently are a lack of healthcare access, followed by food insecurity and housing insecurity.

[For those readers who do not know Vida Chan Lin, you should. A community treasure and leader, her entire life (including her career as a successful owner of an insurance company) has been fueled by service to others and to her community. While most individuals who have reached half a century of experience are counting their days until retirement, the visionary Ms. Lin decided to launch a second career. In early 2015, she founded the Asian Community Development Council (ACDC), which has quickly morphed into a multi-million-dollar organization with a broad footprint in Nevada. The ACDC is one of the few community development organizations in the Silver State that offers a wide range of services –e.g., a food pantry, citizenship assistance, housing assistance, flu shots, tax preparation, workforce development services, voter registration, college readiness, etc. This past Sunday, I spent the day with Lin touring ACDC’s facility at Shanghai Plaza in the heart of Southern Nevada’s Chinatown, which serves as a COVID-19 pop-up vaccination site (in partnership with Immunize Nevada). Lin very graciously (and literally) held my hand as I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (I am brave enough to spend two years alone in a war-torn country but still freak out when it comes to needles!).] 

According to ACDC, approximately 40,000 Asian American Pacific Islanders in Nevada do not have health insurance (25,700 of these individuals are below the age of 65). And the number of Asian Americans living in poverty grew 127 percent between 2007 and 2013, higher than the rate for any other racial group. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), many Asian Americans, particularly those who are age 65 and older, “are in more dire financial straits because of their lesser likelihood to have pensions, social security, and other financial products like health insurance and retirement savings.”

Housing insecurity is also a concern of significant proportions. While the 2020 Homeless Point-in-Time Count and Survey numbers in Southern Nevada revealed that less than five percent of Southern Nevada’s homeless population is of AAPI origin (while 32 percent are African American and 59 percent are White), Lin cautioned that there is tremendous (and hidden) housing insecurity: “some houses have as many as three families living together.” But for the willingness of a friend or family to share a room or a couch and house those individuals, many more could be homeless. To address the need, ACDC has been working with the Clark County Department of Social Services to administer emergency rental assistance during the pandemic and through the recovery.   

Prior to the pandemic, the ACDC did not have a food pantry.  However, upon realizing the growing need, ACDC quickly organized and leveraged contacts and a serendipitous opportunity to stand up a 6,000 square foot food pantry with industrial sized freezers. Reflecting Lin’s attention to detail and inclusive approach, the food pantry stocks different varieties of rice and sauces to meet the distinct culinary preferences across origin groups.

As evidenced, when confronted with community need, Lin moves swiftly and with purpose – standing up a food pantry and a pop-up vaccination clinic. The efforts of ACDC (and others) may explain why, by one account, the COVID 19 vaccination rate among Asian Americans is the highest in Nevada!

Now that Nevada has moved into the recovery stage, Lin is making plans beyond the pandemic to continue to serve the needs of the AAPI (and broader) community. Top of mind are ACDC’s efforts to continue to engage the AAPI community in civic education and voter registration activities. (Historically, Asian Americans have had low civic engagement and voter turnout rates).  Additionally, Lin is actively trying to establish a much-needed language bank, like those that exist in other communities, that can provide translation services to non-Native English speakers and immigrants. Should Assembly Bill 177, which mandates that prescription labels be printed in the patient's native language, become law, the language bank that ACDC seeks to stand up may become an even more compelling endeavor.   

While Lin did not mention it during our time together, one additional challenge faced by the AAPI community here and elsewhere is the rise of hate crimes and violence against AAPI community members since the pandemic started. In a survey conducted last month, the Pew Research Center found that “32 percent of Asian adults – a greater percentage than any other racial or ethnic groups – said that they feared someone might threaten or physically attack them.” On May 20, President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act legislation.  

As we continue to celebrate the achievements and the contributions of the Asian American Pacific Islander community in Nevada, lest we not forget that there are many in this diverse community in need of support. Our celebratory gestures should be coupled with continued efforts to inquire, learn, collaborate, support, and engage to ensure educational, economic and political opportunities are broadly available to all in the Asian American Pacific Islander community in Nevada.

Correction: This column was updated on May 27, 2021 at 10:50 a.m. to correctly identify that Rochelle Nguyen is the second AAPI woman elected to the Assembly. Francis Allen, who served from 2004-2008, was the first.

Nancy Brune, Ph.D. is the founding executive director of the Guinn Center, a statewide, independent, nonpartisan policy research center. She is a senior fellow at the Boyd School of Law and serves on the Law and Leadership Program Advisory Council. Dr. Brune received her Ph.D. from Yale University and her Master of Public Policy and B.A. degrees from Harvard University. Prior to joining the Guinn Center, she was a senior policy analyst at Sandia National Laboratories, where she worked on issues of national security. You can follow her on Twitter @NancyBrune or email her at nbrune@guinncenter.org.