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Asian Americans and Social Security

Low wages and long life spans make retirement benefits particularly important

Work in low-wage jobs and longer-than-usual life spans have caused many older Asian Americans, particularly Southeast Asian refugees, to rely heavily on Social Security income to meet their needs in retirement, according to a new report.

About one in seven older Asian Americans lives in poverty, and if not for Social Security, that number would climb to one in three, the report by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development concluded.

Among Asian Americans receiving Social Security, more than one in four married couples (29 percent) and more than one in two single people (60 percent) depend on it for virtually all their income, the report found. The annual median income for older Asian American households was $16,757, less than the median $26,177 for older white households.

Titled "Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Social Security: A Primer,” the report is also available in Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.

The report is the second of three commissioned by AARP to study Social Security’s effect on minority groups. The first focuses on African Americans, and the third, still pending, will examine Hispanics.

This latest study offers a snapshot of how critical a role Social Security has taken on for elderly Asian Americans as well as Pacific Islanders, many of whom are from Hawaii.

Social Security and its annual cost-of-living adjustments are particularly important to Asian American beneficiaries, the study said, because their life expectancies are generally longer than those of Americans as a whole.

According to the Social Security Administration, Asian American and Pacific Islander men who were age 65 in 2010 were expected to live on average to age 85; women's life expectancy is 88. That's three years longer than predicted for all men and women in the United States.

For older Asian American women, Social Security income kept 17 percent out of poverty. Still, their poverty rate of 13 percent exceeded the 10 percent rate for older white women, the report found.

Income gap

Among foreign-born Asians who immigrated to America, the report noted a striking gap between high- and low-wage earners.

"There is such diversity within the Asian population, more than other ethnic groups," says Meizhu Lui, author of the report. "On one end, you have highly educated Chinese people [and South Asians] recruited for high-wage tech jobs. At the other end you have people who came here as a result of Southeast Asian wars and from agricultural backgrounds who are not well educated and low-tech. Some came here when they were older, so language is an obstacle. Social Security is particularly important to them, and it's harder for them to live on that income because their wages have been so low and their length of time working may not be as long."

Far fewer Asian Americans (27 percent) have retirement savings and pension income than whites (44 percent). Language barriers and a lack of awareness of the Social Security program were also considered obstacles to receiving benefits, the report said.

About 71 percent of foreign-born Asian Americans don't speak English at home and require help from community-based organizations to connect them to services.

Other findings

The report also concluded that:

  • 13 percent of older Asian and Pacific Islander Americans live in poverty compared with about 10 percent of all older adults.

  • Social Security disability insurance is the most important source of income for Asian Americans with disabilites of all ages. Of those receiving SSDI, 56 percent rely on it for more than 75 percent of their income.

  • Foreign-born Asian Americans in the United States outnumber their native-born counterparts by one-third.

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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