Report | Economic Growth

Hidden disadvantage: Asian American unemployment and the Great Recession

Issue Brief #277

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Asian Americans experience a complex mix of advantages and disadvantages in finding employment. Asian Americans in the labor force are advantaged in that a large share of them have bachelor’s and advanced degrees. In contrast, they also have a larger share of workers than whites without high school diplomas.

Asian Americans with bachelor’s degrees only have a higher unemployment rate than whites with bachelor’s degrees. Asian American high school dropouts, however, are more successful than white dropouts at finding work.

These advantages and disadvantages sum to a net disadvantage for Asian American workers. The overall unemployment rate for Asian Americans, 25-years-old and over in the fourth quarter of 2009 was 7.1%. The comparable rate for whites was 7.0%. If Asian Americans had the same unemployment rates by education level as whites, however, the Asian American unemployment rate would have been 6.3%, almost a percentage point lower. Thus, overall, Asian American workers are disadvantaged relative to white workers.

Further research is necessary to deepen our understanding of Asian Americans in the labor force. This analysis raises numerous questions about whether there are significant differences in the occupations and industries of Asian American workers in comparison with white workers that might explain the differences in unemployment rates. Also, it would be informative to examine the labor force participation rates and the relative wages of Asian American and white workers.

While there is still much to understand about Asian Americans in the labor force, the overall disadvantage in employment for Asian Americans is a disturbing finding. It points, once again, to the conclusion that as a society we still have a way to go in guaranteeing equal opportunity for all workers.