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Obama Administration Seeks Increased Asian American and Pacific Islander Access to Federal Programs

For the month of May, Obama administration officials plan to hold a series of events aimed at improving the lives of underserved Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Help can’t come soon enough, says Dr. Eugenio Matibag, director of Iowa State University’s Center for American Intercultural Studies and Asian American Studies. Matibag recently noted that “the nation and its leaders will have to account for the disparities that have challenged marginalized AAPI groups. Data collection practices have lumped together groups in the AAPI categories and in so doing overlooked some of their particular challenges.”

More than 15 million people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent live in this country, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. This includes 460,000 individuals who were either born here or immigrated during 2005-06.

Despite the pervasiveness of the model minority myth that presumes that all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are well-educated, only 29 percent of adults are college graduates, according to the 2008 Survey. And Matibag points out that wide differences exist among various subgroups, such as only 20 percent of Vietnamese, 12 percent of Native Hawaiians and 11 percent of Cambodians holding college degrees.

Furthermore, 11.8 percent of Asians live in poverty, but the rate jumps to 23 percent for subgroups such as Hmong.

Such disparities have resulted from many factors for many years, Matibag contends. For instance, the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Act in 1996 ended federal food stamp distribution to more than 600,000 permanent legal U.S. residents, which included numerous southeast Asians. Besides the further impoverishment of those individuals, the move was “a devaluation” of people who were U.S. allies during the Vietnam War, Matibag notes.

In response to such disparities last October, President Obama signed an executive order re-establishing the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Co-chaired by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the Initiative is charged with increasing AAPI access to and participation in federal programs.

As an example of AAPI needs, the Initiative said this week that Asians in this country have sustained the largest drop of any racial group over the past year. 

Since October, the Initiative has set up its offices in the Education Department and met with officials from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Health and Human Services Department, the Housing and Urban Development Department, the Justice Department and the Interior Department. Kiran Ahuja, executive director of the Initiative, says that in the coming months, work will shift to building community engagement on the local level.

The same executive order last fall also established the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and the Federal Interagency Working Group. The Commission and Working Group will be made up of individuals, agencies and executive branch departments representing a broad spectrum of fields and programs. Matibag says that membership to the Commission was opened up to the public and “an overwhelming 2,500 applications were reviewed” with selections to be announced in June.

Earlier this month, Matibag presented a paper at the annual conference of the National Association of Ethnic Studies summarizing the early efforts of the Initiative. He also detailed some of the educational, health and economic disparities between Asians and Whites as well as among some Asian subgroups.

As an example, Matibag pointed out that while Obama’s signing of the universal health care law barely a month ago will benefit every constituency, it does not address ongoing problems such as high rates of breast and cervical cancer mortality among Asian women. Matibag cited several health care advocates in saying that breast cancer occurs four times more frequently among foreign-born Asian American women than those born here, while Vietnamese American women have about five times the incidence of cervical cancer than White women.

Coinciding with May’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Locke will hold an online chat to discuss the Initiative’s work; Duncan will tour a public school with a bilingual program and large numbers of Asian American students; and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will discuss employment and labor issues with community leaders. The Initiative is organizing roundtable discussions between top agency officials and community leaders on a variety of other issues, such as health disparities and housing. 

“We want all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to know what resources the Obama administration has available,” Ahuja says.

More information about specific events in May is available at

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