Cultural Factors Help Limit Recession's Impact

etnic group and recession

RALEIGH, N.C. — Until this summer, Loc Tran, 59, was a technician at Nortel, a global communications company that has facilities at Research Triangle Park here. Then she left and opened Pho' Cali, a Vietnamese restaurant.

When her brother lost his job at another local electronics company, he didn't become unemployed. He joined the family business. "My brother works here now," Tran says.

The recession has been brutal for just about every segment of the population, but though the unemployment rate for Asian Americans has been inching upward, it has been far lower than the rates for whites, blacks, Hispanics or the nation as a whole. Among those groups, Asian Americans have had the lowest jobless rate every month since 2000, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking monthly unemployment among Asians.

The unemployment gap — 7.5% for Asians in October, compared with 10.2% nationwide — stems from a combination of education benchmarks and cultural traditions that foster family support when someone is out of work, researchers say.

"Asians in the United States, both native born Asians and Asian immigrants, have higher educational levels than other groups," says Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.

A recent Labor Department report on the work force shows a greater proportion of Asians than other racial or ethnic groups in management, professional and related occupations — jobs that require more schooling and are high-paying. About 47% work in management or professional jobs compared with 35% for the U.S. work force as a whole.

Asians account for 5% of U.S. workers but make up a disproportionate share of computer software engineers (29%), computer programmers (20%), computer scientists and system analysts (16%).

"The character of this recession and how it's affected groups by educational attainment shows that information technology has done better, health care has done better," Berube says.

Asians also are "tied in by a social network, a family network," says Paul Ong, a professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA. "Rather than lay people off, you will find them spread the work out and there is lots of use of family labor."

Work ethics and close family ties certainly are not unique to Asians. But when coupled with high educational levels, those characteristics contribute to a lower unemployment rate. Hispanics, for example, demonstrate similar work and family values but their population as a whole is not as educated as Asians.

Cultural and family ties are strong in immigrant-dominated communities and are powerful when combined with income and education, says Robert Lang, sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

"Despite their upward mobility, Asians are still a minority group and thus more closely connected to one another than a native-born Caucasian American," he says. "You're much more on your own if you're a middle-income, native-born white American, especially in a big city."

Seema Agnani, executive director of Chhaya, a community organization in Jackson Heights, a South Asian neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., cautions that unemployment rates can be deceptively low because some immigrants work for cash and are not officially on a payroll.

"A lot of the folks who have lost income are not going to necessarily claim unemployment typically because they weren't working on the books in the first place," she says.

A combination of factors

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