Volume 16 • Issue 29 | December 16 - 22, 2003



Poverty, poor language skills plague Chinatown, says report

By Jessica Mintz

Chinatown residents speak less English, make less money and are less likely to have completed high school than the average New Yorker, according to a neighborhood report issued Monday by the Asian American Federation of New York.

The profile, based on 1990 and 2000 census data, paints a picture of a neighborhood with a growing elderly population living under the poverty line and a workforce still crippled by economic blows dealt to Lower Manhattan as a whole after the events of Sept. 11. Chinatown remains a neighborhood of immigrants, says the profile; the number of residents who speak English fluently or have a high school degree lags far behind the city as a whole, prompting the federation to issue a cry for more social services.

“Chinatown is part of Lower Manhattan,” said Andrew Yan, the data manager at the federation’s Census Information Center. “Chinatown shouldn’t be forgotten in all this large amount of spending dealing with the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan.”

According to the federation’s report, census data shows that of the 84,840 people living in Chinatown in 2000, 66 percent are of Asian descent, mostly Chinese and Chinese-American. A little over half (52 percent) of Chinatown residents are immigrants, compared to 36 percent foreign-born residents living in New York City as a whole.

Almost 60 percent of Asian adults in the neighborhood don’t have a high school diploma, more than twice the city average of 28 percent. About 40 percent of adults in the neighborhood speak English “not well” or “not at all,” but that jumps to 63 percent for adults over the age of 65.

“What’s needed, first of all, are improved adult education programs,” said Yan. “If you look at some of the popularity of a lot of the training programs, that shows there is a demand for improving linguistic abilities and improving skills base. [People are] quite open towards improving their lot in life.”

Improving adults’ English proficiency is a step toward breaking the cycle for younger generations, said Yan. “Successful students have active parent participation in their lives. [Now, the situation] puts the onus upon the school system. If you’re working with children whose parents don’t necessarily speak English, the education system is going to have to adapt,” and improve multilingual outreach to neighborhood parents.

Thirty-one percent of the neighborhood’s Asian population lives under the poverty line; elderly (40 percent) and children (35 percent) are hit the hardest. Overall, 45 percent of Chinatown households earn less than $20,000 a year, compared to 35 percent of Manhattan households.

“What was really surprising was the number of elders in the neighborhood,” Yan said. “They were the population age segment that grew the fastest in Chinatown, particularly the Asians. It shows the changing nature of Chinatown in Manhattan, where you see a lot of older folks who maybe have had their families over in Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey deciding to move into Chinatown, to get social networks back together.”

The neighborhood profile concludes with a general call for policies and programs to support economic development in Chinatown, including creating new jobs and improving job training to combat unemployment triggered by 9/11 (which, according to the federation, affected 75 percent of the neighborhood’s workers). Health care, social service programs and affordable housing, in response to the high poverty and low education rates, are also on the federation’s agenda

“Within the community, they have come up with interesting recommendations. It hasn’t all been just ‘government, give me more money,’” said Yan. “There is a current discussion about retooling the garment industry so that it’s more adaptive towards changing market realities [including more jobs moving overseas]. One thing that we made sure we talked about in the brief is that the garment industry is one of biggest employers in Chinatown.”

And, said Yan, promoting tourism and creating a cultural arts center will help bring revenue and give the neighborhood more of an anchor.

Other Chinatown community groups appreciate the work the federation has done to compile census data in such a compelling way.

“It helps to paint a fuller picture of the problems, and indicates better what some of the problems Chinatown residents are facing after 9/11,” said Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It shows a stark picture of working poor families facing poverty and lack of language access to various services.”

The profile also points out that 94 percent of Chinatown residents rent their homes, more than 20 percentage points higher than in the city overall. Fung, whose organization has been working to ensure Chinatown residents receive rental assistance grants from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, hopes that the federation’s brief will bring more attention to the issue.

Christopher Kui, the executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, agreed that the profile “captures the reality of Chinatown and its residents” and presents a good overview of the challenges the neighborhood is facing. Through his work on the neighborhood coalition-driven Rebuild Chinatown Initiative, Kui said he is able to balance the federation’s grim statistical overview with a deep sense of optimism for the neighborhood.

“There is a strong commitment of residents, families who really want to build the community and maintain the integrity of Chinatown,” said Kui.



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