Poverty, Cultural Barriers Haunt Desi Youth

(Photo via SAYA)

(Photo via SAYA)

A new study draws a troubling picture of the plight of South Asian youth in New York City, 25 percent of whom are living below the federal poverty level. Many more face bullying in schools and cultural barriers at home.

Writing in Desi Talk, Ela Dutt notes that findings of the study, “New York City South Asian Youth: Critical Mass, Urgent Needs,” contrast with the widely held view of South Asians as a model minority with above average national incomes and education.

South Asian Youth Action (SAYA), a Queens-based nonprofit group, recently completed the policy report, which offers a comprehensive portrait of the ethnic groups from South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The study makes several recommendations for what it calls a “targeted community-based agenda to correct the path to intergenerational poverty.”

Udai Tambar, executive director of SAYA, calls the report findings a “troubling reality” of what it means to be a young South Asian in New York City. Over the last decade, New York City’s overall youth population is declining yet South Asian youth population steadily increased from nearly 83,000 in 2000 to over 102,000 in 2010.

The report, which uses U.S. Census data, says some 23,972 of the South Asian youth are of Indian origin, 27,596 from Bangladesh, and 19,565 from Pakistan. There are also 21,421 from Indo-Caribbean communities. They are dispersed across much of the city’s 59 Community Districts. The report found South Asian youth to be poorer than their peers across all five boroughs.

More than 25 percent of South Asian youth in NYC live at or below the federal poverty level (FPL)  (the 2013 federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,550); more than 50% of South Asian youth live in families at or below 200 percent FPL or 47,000 approximately not an easy wage to survive in the high-cost metropolis. 

The report found higher levels of poverty among South Asian youths in Queens and Brooklyn. SAYA says besides economic challenges, many cultural and other factors prove obstacles to opportunity for South Asian youth. These include bullying at school, as well as parents’ language barrier and their lack of familiarity with the American school system.

A girl interviewed said she was often called a “terrorist” because she wore a hijab. One youth talked of his parents’ lack of understanding. “I feel like they don’t know anything about school. If I stay late after school for anything, I have to deal with crazy accusations about being on drugs or doing something wrong.”

One girl said she could not go away for college and live in a dorm because she was not married.

“This is a very common complaint from many of our youth,” Chelsea Snow, development and communications associate at SAYA, told Desi Talk. The report also notes how school staff reports young girls being taken out of school and sent to their native countries to get married.

The report says such barriers cause a disconnection between youth and their families on the one hand and the parents and the school system on the other.

Poor information about how to navigate a complicated, increasingly choice-based, school system coupled with unconscious negative parental attitudes make South Asian youth vulnerable to socio-emotional setbacks, bad decisions, and disengagement at school, says SAYA, which is mandated to help poor South Asian youths.

It calls on the city to adopt a “practical agenda” to improve parental engagement and make schools safe and welcoming for South Asian youth by having a culturally competent staff and enhanced curriculum.

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