Social Text 18.1 (2000) 55-79
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Southeast Asian Poverty in the United States
Eric Tang *
On 22 August 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Once fully implemented, this act has the potential to destroy the means of subsistence of millions of working and jobless poor who will be removed from all federal assistance programs granted under the Social Security Act by the year 2002. 1 Yet the damaging effects of PRWORA have already been felt. Those who were targeted to suffer the most immediate and life-threatening cuts to the welfare state were "legal," green-card-holding immigrants receiving federal aid through the Social Security Administration (SSA). In September 1997, states began implementing their specific plans to remove immigrants from SSA-administered Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the disabled and elderly, and food stamps for dependent, immigrant children. Following this initial immigrant removal, federal cash assistance programs, namely Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), will be drastically reduced and eventually eliminated for both citizens and immigrants within five years of the signing of PRWORA. 2
Southeast Asians in the United States--primarily Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong, and Cambodian immigrants--represent the largest per capita race or ethnic group in the country receiving public assistance. 3 Originally placed on federal welfare rolls as a temporary and "adaptive" measure under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, a large segment of Southeast Asian refugees who fled their homelands in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam and the subsequent bombing of Cambodia by the United States are now entering a third consecutive decade of welfare dependency, contrary to government officials' predictions of a seamless transition into American labor markets. Stripped of their refugee status in the post-Cold War era, virtually all Southeast Asians have now been reclassified as permanent residents (or "legal" immigrants) and are therefore fully subject to the impending cuts under PRWORA. The consequences of the new law's "immigrant removal" campaign are sweeping and disastrous for Southeast Asian communities that, in California alone, have shown poverty and welfare-dependency rates of nearly 80 percent for the state's entire Southeast Asian population. 4 [End Page 55]
For many of its critics, PRWORA represents a post-civil rights, neoconservative backlash against the poor and nonwhite sectors of the United States, particularly against the black urban poor who have been labeled the new "underclass"--a damaging term that encompasses a range of racist imagery including the sexually deviant "welfare queen," the "dysfunctional" black family, and the uncontrollably violent black male. These distorted and dehumanizing constructions are reproduced in mainstream periodicals, popular literature, and even liberal-leaning policy reports. 5 Yet, despite its wide circulation, the term underclass evades a precise and agreed-on definition. According to historian Robin Kelley, this lack of precision stems from the fact that underclass has never actually referred to a class of people but rather to a set of behaviors. "What makes the 'underclass' a class," suggests Kelley, "is members' common behavior--not their income, their poverty level, or the kind of work they do. . . . It's a definition of class driven more by social panic than by systemic analysis." 6 The common behaviors that comprise the underclass are wide ranging and arbitrary; they can include criminal mischief, sexual promiscuity, shiftlessness, dependency, nihilism, immorality, and deviance. In an attempt to offer some coherence to these random sets of behaviors, underclass proponents have conveniently drawn on the term culture. Indeed, underclass behaviors are often grouped together to represent a so-called culture of poverty. Here, the new underclass literature is appropriating and distorting the work of Oscar Lewis, who, in the early 1960s, first introduced the phrase subculture of poverty. Lewis, however, did not evoke culture to describe a set of immutable behaviors, but rather to describe the daily practices that poor people engaged in, in an effort to both survive and resist systemic inequality and class polarization. 7 For contemporary culture of poverty theorists, the addition of culture still...