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Nickel and Dimed: The Invisible Poverty in the Indian American Community

Nickel and Dimed: The Invisible Poverty in the Indian American Community

  • We are one of the wealthiest of all ethnic groups in the U.S. We must step up and help those among us who are less fortunate.

Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season in the U.S. It is a season to get together with family, eat good food, and celebrate. It is also a season of giving where people donate whatever they can to the lesser fortunate ones. I have tried to do my bit over the years by donating to local food banks and toy drives at work. During the holiday season, I wonder about the lesser fortunate Indian Americans amongst us.

We know they are there — you see them as cashiers in grocery and liquor stores, on bus stands waiting in the cold and rain for the bus to arrive and take them home. What kind of home do they live in an area where the price of a single-family home in Silicon Valley is close to $1 million. I still remember a Punjabi woman who cooked food for us. She could only speak in her native language and didn’t have a car. I had to drop her off every day after cooking, but I never knew where exactly she lived. She would make me drop her off at a park and would insist on walking back to her house from there. I will never know the reason; I suspect it might have to do with her living conditions.

This year the situation is worse with the Covid-19 pandemic. It adds one more question to my long list of outstanding ones — how badly has the Indian American community been affected by the pandemic. I recently came across a report published by Indiaspora trying to answer some of these questions. The authors of this report, “A Study of Poverty in the Indian American Population,” are Devesh Kapur, Professor of South Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and Jashan Bajwa, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. The study was done in collaboration with the nonprofit Indiaspora headed by M.R. Rangaswamy, a software executive, investor and entrepreneur. 

Out of 4.2 million Indian Americans, about 6.5 percent live below the poverty line. The good news is the poverty rate has been gradually declining over the years, from 9 percent in 2010 to 6.5 percent in 2018.

According to the report, out of 4.2 million Indian Americans, about 6.5 percent live below the poverty line. The good news is the poverty rate has been gradually declining over the years, from 9 percent in 2010 to 6.5 percent in 2018. This number, however, is bound to increase this year because of the pandemic. The report estimates that it could grow by between 1.4 to 3.4 percent. Many factors contribute to it, including some of them employed in sectors that have been hardest hit, such as leisure and hospitality, travel, employment services, transportation, and mining.

The report cites several causes for poverty, which is not very different from poverty in the U.S. in general, like education, employment status, occupation, and additionally and most importantly, legal status. Most of the underprivileged Indian Americans are likely to live in rural/semi-rural and inner-city areas. But there are some reasons in the report which are unique to poor Indian Americans compared to other impoverished Americans, like more of them are men than women. Compared to other disadvantaged Americans, Indians are more likely to own their home and health insurance and much less likely to have a disability or use food stamps. The report finds that Bengali and Punjabi speaking are more likely to be living in poverty than Indian Americans overall.

This report is a first in so many ways as it tries to answer questions about the Indian community living below the poverty line. There are still unanswered questions, for example, about the undocumented Indian immigrants. It does provide some numbers: out of the estimated 12 million undocumented residents in the country; there are about half a million from India. One question that is very difficult to capture in a report is: what happens to those immigrants that are victims of human trafficking and sexual abuse. I do read news about human trafficking, but mostly it is related to immigrants from South America. Once in a while, you do come across a story where Indian immigrants are involved. The most painful aspect of this is that the perpetrator is also an Indian, more often than not.

In a related matter, two news reports have lingered in memory and are deeply disturbing. Last month there was news about an Indian American couple arrested for enslaving immigrants in their liquor store. The couple brought the man to the U.S. to work in their liquor store. The investigators discovered that apart from not being paid, the couple forced the man to sleep in a small storage closet and bathe in a mop bucket.

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It reminded me of another news in the late 1990s of the arrest of a well-known Berkeley landlord and restaurant owner for illegally bringing two teenage girls and a young woman from India for prostitution and other immoral purposes. The man in the news, Lakireddy Bali Reddy, was a graduate of UC Berkeley and owned several rental properties and a restaurant chain named Pasand Madras cuisine. One of the young girls died of carbon monoxide poisoning in one of his apartments. 

These are just some examples of Indian immigrants mistreated by fellow Indian Americans. I am sure there are many more happening across the U.S. that have not come to light yet. I always wonder about the psyche behind the Laki Reddy’s of this world. Is it greed? Is it a sexual perversion? I hope these are the only bad apples amongst us, and we are the model community that the rest of America thinks of us. As a community, we need to step up and do more for our lesser fortunate among us.

Nimish Singh lives in Fremont, California, and has made Silicon Valley his home for the last 26 years. He has led engineering in startups before and currently heads one of the engineering groups in a leading Cybersecurity company. An avid reader, Nimish is actively involved in local theater as a playwright and songwriter. 

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