A closer look at Asian-American income

In her blog post on the earnings differences among interracial couples, the New York Times‘ Catherine Rampell concludes:  “So basically, what these numbers are reflecting is that Asians earn more money, period, which is generally true across the population of Asian-Americans and has been the case for a while.” This is true when looking at household and family income, but there is a different and more complicated story underneath these numbers.

It is important to recognize that many more Asian Americans have college degrees than whites. This 2010 EPI report found that nearly 60 percent of Asian American workers have a bachelor’s or higher degree compared to about 40 percent of white workers. College-educated workers tend to earn more than less-educated workers and this pulls up the median Asian American earnings.

When one compares the annual personal income of Asian Americans and whites of the same gender and educational level, Asian Americans do not always come out on top. The figure below shows these comparisons for workers with a high school diploma and with a bachelor’s degree. In 2010, among workers with a high school diploma, white men earned about $11,000 more than white women and Asian American men and women.

Among workers with a bachelor’s degree, white men remain the highest earners, but their earnings advantage over Asian American men is only about $5,000. In this comparison, Asian American and white women earn significantly less than Asian American men. Asian American women earn about $11,000 less than Asian American men, and white women earn about $13,000 less than Asian American men. This puts Asian American and white women at about $16,000 and $18,000 behind white men, respectively.

Another issue to consider is that Asian Americans are more concentrated than whites in high-cost-of-living areas. Asian Americans are overrepresented in expensive metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Honolulu. Given this fact, controlling for educational attainment, Asian Americans should earn more than whites, but as the figure illustrates, they often don’t.


  • David Liu

    You forgot to add in factors like age.

    Minorities tend to be younger than the white population.

    What is the median salary for a white man at 35 with a bachelor degree compared with the asian equivalent?

    By just pulling all men with bachelors, you compare a population which is far older with one which is relatively younger. I don’t think you need to be a genius to figure out that people in their 50s make more than those who are in their late 20s and early 30s.

    Another factor to consider is the hours worked, overtime etc.

    If you’re going to ‘dig deep’ then do it right. Some of us are actually interested in these things but sloppy analysis like these don’t help anyone, but undermine the reputation of the author.

  • Alvin

    Dr. Austin,

    Good point, especially about the high school diploma only group. However, I would have to disagree with the conclusion that they often don’t. I looked at the PINC-03 from the Census Bureau, and across the board, they often do. From http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032011/perinc/new03_000.htm, if you look at Both Sexes, 25 Years and Over, Worked Full-Time, Year-Round, White alone and Both Sexes, 25 Years and Over, Worked Full-Time, Year-Round, Asian alone, you will see that the Whites with a bachelor’s degree have median earnings of 56,901 versus 58,072 for Asians. 

    Even in your analysis, if “bachelor’s degree” had been “bachelor’s degree or more” (which should have been the case because the EPI report you linked to is for “bachelor’s or higher degree”), then White males have median earnings of 73,182 versus 75,223 for Asian males. I agree with the previous comment regarding more in-depth analysis.