Asian American Women and Retirement

A friend notified me of a women’s current affairs segment that would be addressing the concerns of retiring APA women. She asked me to blog about it, so here we are:


When I was in my twenties, my mother gave me a book about saving for retirement. Did it snap me out of denial? I’m sorry to say it didn’t. At the time I was a graduate student and the opportunity to make more than $9,000 a year (or what I’d make as a graduate assistant) seemed impossible.

Still, I appreciated her wisdom and while I wasn’t able to take advantage of her message then, I’ve gotten much better about managing my affairs now. And seeing the statistics about Asian women’s longevity in “To the Contrary,” I understand her concern. We live longer, on average, than women of any other ethnic group: 86 years. That extended lifespan also means we get caught in the sandwich generation longer: 21 years to nurture a kid to semi-self-sufficient maturity, but then a very long stretch where the aging parent in the generation ahead of us needs more and more care. Or, consider when we ourselves become very aged and have a lengthy period of often complicated health needs.

I liked how the issue was broadened to include a strong push in support of social security from two longtime Asian Pacific American activists who participated in the roundtable after the main piece. But, shockingly, I actually agreed with Linda Chavez’s point that extended family structures are important to Asian and Latino families and have an impact on the resources APA senior women have as they age. (I disagree with Chavez on her “English-only” stances and general overall conservatism.)

And maybe had the segment been longer, it could’ve explored how cultural traditions supplement or augment the usual mechanisms of the social safety net. For example, if 28% of APAs rely on social security as their sole source of income after they retire, does that mean there’s a greater incidence of poverty for APA seniors?

This was implied but not clear from the story; the statistic about $250,000 lost over a lifetime to “unpaid” work like caregiving was sobering. And I think getting a clearer picture of how much and how reliably retired APA women can turn to their families helps illustrate the kind of poverty APA women may face. Are their families there for them?

Do Asian families still take their elders into their homes as the younger, American-born generations age and become more Americanized? How do sandwich generation women in limited-English families cope with navigating the social security system on behalf of their elders? Do some very low-income APA women have little to no social security support because of the type of work they did (garment/piece labor) or because they immigrated in mid-life? What are their challenges?

Another thing I’m really curious about is if the divorce rate for APA women of retirement age has increased at all. There are cultural dimensions to this too–the “Taiwan [insert Asian country here] divorce,” where perhaps the man permanently “returns” to the nation of origin, perhaps to care for or even start another family, and the woman is left to her own devices or must support/rely on her children. In all of this, no divorce papers are filed. Or, is the “American” institution of legally-granted divorce gaining greater acceptance among older APAs? To what extent does a reliance on one’s children reduce the need or initiative taken by APA senior women to have greater financial literacy? (This kind of goes to Irene Natividad’s point and the overall financial health of the family.)

As we know, divorce (and obviously, becoming widowed) is often an impoverishing experience for women, and I’d imagine just as much among these older APA women.

If I had to sum up my reaction to the segment, it’s one I have of most tv news and current affairs programs: I want to know more. I feel the brevity of the piece is a tease to motivate the viewer to do their own digging, but at the same time I often feel like the brief filmed news pieces could themselves contain more information. And that was a nine minute-long segment, an eternity in television journalism!

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