Asian Americans are more upbeat on home finances

Updated: 2013-07-05 11:38

By Joseph Boris in Washington (China Daily)

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The fiscal scorekeeper for Congress this week said a Senate-passed immigration overhaul would cut $135 billion from the US budget deficit over the next decade and potentially reduce illegal entries by half.

That forecast bolsters another positive projection from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, issued before the Senate's June 27 vote: Comprehensive immigration changes could add 3.3 percent to the US economy in 2023 and 5.4 percent in 2033.

Senators who voted for the legislation hope its economic benefits will be enough to overcome opposition from conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives. Opponents are demanding stricter security measures along the US-Mexico border before they will consider a plan aimed at clearing the way to citizenship for as many as 11 million people now living illegally in the US.

"Immigration is not just something that is consistent with our values, it is also consistent with growing our economy, increasing jobs and expanding our middle class," Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, whose parents moved to the US from Poland when he was a child, told a group of new Americans at a citizenship ceremony on Wednesday. "Yet the troubling truth remains that too many immigrants do not get a fair shot at the American dream. Too often, they are forced to live and work in the shadows. This not only hurts them, it hurts America as well."

Lew said that although the current US immigration system opens US colleges and universities to bright foreign students, it forces them to leave the country upon completion of their studies.

"That encourages industries of the future to grow outside the United States," he said. "This is not good economic policy. And it is like a headwind in our economic sails."

China, which annually sends the largest cohort of higher-education students of any country to US campuses (194,000 during the 2012-13 academic year), would seem a logical beneficiary if the changes approved by the Senate clear the House and are signed into law by President Barack Obama.

These include a new, merit-based point scale that gives preference to highly educated immigrants with skills in science, engineering and other fields, or who are entrepreneurs.

A less obvious, yet important, factor in the ongoing debate is the potential impetus from Chinese immigrant communities and other Asian Americans.

A recent survey by financial-services giant Wells Fargo & Co found that Chinese Americans are "consistently more confident about their current and future financial situation" than the overall US population. This group also engages more frequently in behaviors that support a healthy financial outlook, such as saving for retirement and avoiding credit card debt.

Two-thirds of Chinese Americans said they felt financially comfortable, while 65 percent reported being confident about their financial future, compared with only about half of all American adults asked those questions, according to Wells Fargo's nationwide survey, published in June.

Three in five Chinese Americans said they were better-off financially today than three years ago (compared with 51 percent of all US households expressing that sentiment). Chinese Americans also reported higher household income, with 37 percent earning over $100,000 a year, compared with 23 percent for all US adults.

According to Wells Fargo, non-retired Chinese Americans' level of savings eclipsed the national norm - $100,000 in median self-reported retirement savings, compared with $45,000 for all nonretired Americans. Reflecting cultural habits of saving and thrift, 43 percent reported having cut back on spending in order to put aside money for retirement, compared with 36 percent for the general population.

"Even in multigenerational households, the impact on saving for retirement appears to have little impact," said Margaret Liu, a senior vice-president in Wells Fargo's private-banking division, who advises high-net-worth clients. "As the fastest-growing population in the US, these behaviors are an asset to sustaining and growing US economic status and housing markets."

Sustained improvement in housing, where prices in most US metropolitan areas have been on the rise, is considered crucial, as is job creation, to strengthening the country's economic recovery. And most economists believe a healthy level of individual savings in banks and other financial institutions contributes to fiscal prudence in the public sector, by helping contain budget deficits and preventing, or at least minimizing the impact of, recessions.

"Immigration is not a threat to the US economy - if anything, it makes us stronger. Immigrants fill critical gaps in our work force, invest in new businesses and bring much needed skill sets in science, technology, engineering and math," said Representative Judy Chu of California, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress and whose House district is 37 percent Asian American.

Chen Jia in San Francisco contributed to this story.

(China Daily USA 07/05/2013 page10)