LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA—
More Asian Americans live in Los Angles County than anywhere else in the United States. A recent report by Asian Americans Advancing Justice L.A.
found that, from 2000 to 2010, Asian Americans were the fastest growing group in L.A. County. The report also found that the number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in L.A. County who are unemployed and living in poverty continued to grow. Long Beach, California, is home to the largest Cambodian community outside Cambodia.
Several Asian American communities have some of the highest poverty rates in Los Angeles County. Research analyst Kristin Sakaguchi said many people in Asian communities here diverge from the stereotype of Asian American success and easy assimilation.
“A lot of these communities are marginalized and not really focused on,” said Sakaguchi.
A recent report found that Asian Americans in L.A. County have an overall poverty rate of 11 percent. But the numbers are higher for some of the sub-groups. Twenty-five percent of Cambodian Americans in L.A. County are living in poverty, according to the report. Many are uneducated and worked as farmers or fishermen before reaching the U.S., said Lian Cheun of Khmer Girls in Action, which helps Cambodian American students.
“It’s very taboo to feel like we’re still living in poverty given that we’re outside of Cambodia now. And so people don’t like to talk about it as much,” said Cheun.
Cheun said many Cambodians came to the U.S. as refugees. “We come from a history of war and genocide in our country, and our community has some of the highest PTSD rates, higher than veterans coming back from war, in the U.S.”
Cambodian American high school student Sokbrany Yourk said her parents don’t talk about the past and haven’t assimilated.
“My parents, they both, they work on the assembly line and they both are refugees from Cambodia, as well. It’s hard for them to speak English," she said.
Yourk said her family struggles with not having enough money, especially when it comes to college for her and her three siblings.
“We do deal with financial barriers that make it hard for us to apply to colleges or go to places we want to go because we can’t necessarily afford it,” she said.
Yourk joined Khmer Girls in Action to learn leadership skills. She hopes to help improve the situation for students in her community. But Lian Cheun said getting the funding the group needs to help Cambodian students has been a challenge.
“Oftentimes, there’s not enough data for funders to justify giving additional resources to the community,” said Cheun.
There's a shortage of specific date because Asian Americans traditionally have been seen as one group. Without that data, it’s hard for agencies and donors to justify giving money to specific organizations that help communities in need. Cheun said she hopes that with education, government agencies will begin to see the differences among Asian Americans and change the way they collect data. That will be only one step, however, in helping Cambodian Americans climb out of poverty.