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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are facing staggering levels of income inequality in the U.S. That's according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. In fact, people of Asian descent have displaced black people as the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the U.S. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on a food pantry in New York City that is seeing the growing needs among some Asian Americans firsthand.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A small storefront office in Flushing, Queens, is home to the only food pantry in New York City specializing in South Asian ingredients.
SUDHA ACHARYA: We have rice, atta - it's wheat flour. And toor dal is very good protein.
WANG: Sudha Acharya helped start this food pantry at the South Asian Council for Social Services in 2016. Back then, her staff used to distribute hand-packed bags of rice and spices like coriander powder and red chili powder to about 50 families a week.
ACHARYA: Rajesh, can you help me for a second? Yeah. Thank you.
WANG: But now they serve more than 300 families each Friday. An assembly line of workers has taken over the office's basement. Bags of sweet potatoes and Shanghai bok choy are piled on the floor next to some New York bagels.
MAHBUBA AKHTER: And do you want peanut butter?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Peanut butter, no. I have.
WANG: Many in line speak Mandarin or other Chinese dialects and little or no English. Sudha Acharya remembers the program's early days, when her staff found a man who had started waiting on the sidewalk almost six hours before the food pantry opened. Acharya says he wanted to make sure he would get enough to eat.
ACHARYA: You can imagine if that is how they feel - they're afraid that the food won't be there - the need is very big.
WANG: Some people may be surprised to hear that there is a great need in an Asian community.
ACHARYA: I know. It's - you know, we're always thought of as the model minority. That's really not true. There are people who don't have jobs. There are people who are really underemployed, underpaid.
CHANDRA KUMAR: My name is Chandra Kumar. Born in Trinidad. I'm West Indian, my ancestors from India. And I'm over 50 years old, and I work in a hospital facility.
WANG: Kumar stopped by the South Asian food pantry during her lunch break, wearing her light blue scrubs. The food she picks up here helps cut down on grocery costs for her mother and at her own home, where she lives with her retired husband, adult son and grandchild.
KUMAR: I don't buy rice anymore in the grocery. I don't buy dal anymore.
WANG: You save that money.
KUMAR: And I - yeah. There's so many other bills in New York. And you think about all your bills to pay. You can't cover all your bills. Sometime you're back-to-back on a paycheck.
WANG: Around the country, more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are feeling that financial pressure. A gap between those at the top of the income ladder and those at the bottom has almost doubled since 1970. That's according to Rakesh Kochhar.
RAKESH KOCHHAR: I'm senior researcher at the Pew Research Center.
WANG: He says this income gap is largely driven by immigration patterns that began in the 1970s. That's when the share of immigrants from Asia working in high-skill jobs started to drop because more newcomers with lower education levels were coming.
KOCHHAR: Some are refugees. And many have come for family reunification reasons.
WANG: Kochhar says many of them are facing different outcomes in the U.S. than those who came mainly for economic reasons. For example...
KOCHHAR: There's an Indian who came to study in graduate school and then went on to work in technology or healthcare or somebody like me, in research.
WANG: Sudha Acharya says focusing on top-earning Asian Americans in high-skill jobs obscures the need she sees every week in Flushing, Queens.
ACHARYA: At present, we need to take care of the people who are suffering, who are needy.
WANG: And at New York's South Asian food pantry, that means helping to make sure everyone in line has enough to eat. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
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