Cultural Impact: Merced County's Hmong community among the nation's largest

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 14, 2013 

— Merced is home to the fifth largest Hmong community in the country, according to a recent study.

The study, published in the Hmong Studies Journal's special issue on the 2010 census, states that Merced's Hmong population saw a significant increase from 2000 to 2010, going up to 7,254 from 6,148. The study used information from the 2010 census and expertise from scholars around the country.

California overall continues to have the largest Hmong population of any other state, with a total of 91,224. That represents a 40 percent increase from 2000.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are two other states with a large Hmong population.

"Hmong in California in terms of socioeconomics are not doing quite as well as Hmong in some other states," said Mark Pfeifer with the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Pfeifer, who coordinated the efforts of the study, which took more than a year to complete, said that could be because the Hmong population in the state is concentrated in the Central Valley -- a region that has suffered from unemployment and tough economic times.

He believes the socioeconomics can be improved by education and jobs that match the skills of the community.

Houa Vang, executive director of the Merced Lao Family Community in Merced, said he believes the Hmong population has been decreasing recently. He thinks it will only continue to decrease.

"We have families that keep moving out every summer throughout the area to Minnesota and Wisconsin," he said.

Vang said a major factor that's leading Hmong families in Merced to move out of the area is the lack of job opportunities. Many move away to take jobs in manufacturing, he said.

In California, the estimated Hmong poverty level in 2010 was higher than the national level, according to the study. The state had an estimated Hmong poverty rate of 31 percent.

Child care costs cited

Vang said in Merced the older Hmong people tend to have low-wage jobs and most households tend to only have one worker, which could explain the high poverty rate. He said the women often stay home to take care of the children because they can't afford to pay for child care services.

"They'd rather take care of the kids" than work, he said.

Most Hmong families average six to seven children, Vang said.

However, Pfeifer said the study shows the the family size is slowly decreasing. There's also a more youthful population, he said.

The median Hmong age is 19 or 20 in most states, Pfeifer said.

Also, the percentage of Hmong Americans 25 years or older with a bachelor's degree or higher nearly doubled in 2010 compared with 2000, the study shows. In 2010, 14.5 percent of that population group had a bachelor's degree compared with 7.4 percent in 2000.

That has been evident in Merced, Vang said. More Hmong are pursing a college education.

However, many of them are also leaving Merced because they can't find a job once they graduate from college, he said.

Vang said two primary things that would help improve the quality of life for Hmong living in Merced would be more employment opportunities and social services.

He said many Hmong don't speak English so many of them can't go places without translation services.

"A lot of people just get stuck and don't know where to go," he said.

Education improves

Among other study findings, the educational disparities, especially within higher education between Hmong American women and men, appear to have been eliminated, Pfeifer.

Pfeifer said he hopes policy-makers will pay attention to the study.

"Health disparities need more attention," he said, adding more funding and research is needed.

Some good news is that more research has been conducted on Hmong American health disparities with certain types of cancers, diabetes, hepatitis B, hypertension, kidney stones and mental illness.

Among the resources the Merced Lao Family Community center offers is mental health services, Vang said. It also provides child education and after- school activities for youth, among other services.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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