Ong Finds Digital Divide in Remote Learning Access

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the education news site The 74 about students with limited internet and technology access who are falling behind in remote classes. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also cited a UCLA report authored by Ong, which found that nearly one in three American households had limited computer or internet access this fall. Students of color, students with disabilities, students learning English and students from low-income households are more likely to fall on the “wrong side of the digital divide,” making it harder to access classes, engage with peers, and complete and upload assignments. “You can think about all of these things that by themselves may not seem absolutely fatal, but collectively it has this cumulative effect that eventually leaves certain students behind,” Ong explained. While the report does not focus on the effects of limited access, Ong noted that the implications are clear and concerning.

Ong Points to Chinatown as Economic Barometer

Center for Neighborhood Knowledge Director Paul Ong was featured in a Bloomberg article about the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Chinatown businesses. Across the United States, Asian American businesses experienced a slowdown even before the pandemic arrived in the United States as a result of xenophobic fears about the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. According to Ong, these businesses could be a strong indicator of the long-term economic impact of the pandemic on small businesses. “What distinguishes Chinatown businesses is that they’ve been facing financial and fiscal problems for a much longer time, with deeper cuts to revenues,” he explained. Ong stressed the importance of relief stimulus packages to protect these historic communities before it’s too late. “If we can intervene to save these businesses and neighborhoods, that may tell us a lot about what we need to do to help businesses and workers beyond Chinatown,” he concluded.

Despite Improved Access, Digital Divide Persists for Minority, Low-Income Students UCLA research shows battle for educational equity has shifted into a new space

By John McDonald

While students’ access to computers and the internet improved during the pandemic-affected and largely remote fall school term, a clear digital divide persists, especially among Black, Latino and low-income students, according to a new report by the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.

“It appears that the lack of access has become less severe this fall than it was last spring, as schools have made adjustments to support remote learning,” said Paul Ong, the center’s director and an author of the report. “But it is also clear that a lack of access and real and troubling divide remains.”

This digital divide, the authors say, translates into students missing lessons, being unable to access materials and struggling to complete assignments — all of which have significant implications for long-term learning and success later in life.

The researchers used data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey to provide a current look at household access to computers and the internet. Their findings show that the rate of limited digital access for households fell from a high of 42% during the panic and chaos of school closures last spring to about 31% this fall.

But the data also make clear that during the fall term, racial and economic inequality has remained significant, with African American and Latino households being 1.3 to 1.4 times as likely as white households to experience limited accessibility. Low-income households are most impacted by digital unavailability, with more than 2 in 5 having limited access to a computer or the internet.

In addition, since mid-October, the rate of digital inaccessibility has increased slowly but unmistakably. The researchers are concerned that the divide may worsen amid the current surge in COVID-19 infections and resulting restrictions.

“This new research details a persistent and troubling digital divide among students, with far-reaching implications for educational access and equitable opportunities,” said Tina Christie, the Wasserman Dean of the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, which co-published the report with the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“The pandemic has brought into focus the intimate connection between education and technological connectivity and, with it, the connection between connectivity and social justice,” Christie said. “The battleground for educational equity has now, and perhaps forever, shifted into a new space.”

According to Ong, a UCLA Luskin research professor, persistent digital inequality threatens to widen disparities in achievement as minority and low-income children become adults, contributing to an intergenerational reproduction of inequality.

“The disparities in limited technological resources for virtual learning are not just today’s education crisis,” Ong said. “Falling behind increases the achievement gap, which has long-term social and economic implications. To avoid this tragedy, we must act immediately and decisively to close the digital divide.”

COVID-19 and the Digital Divide in Virtual Learning, fall 2020, is a publication of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The research brief was published in collaboration with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. Read the full research brief.

Contact: John McDonald

Center for Neighborhood Knowledge on L.A.’s Housing Crisis

A New Yorker article on homelessness and the affordable housing crisis in California cited data from the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge (CNK). The article focused on Weekend Warriors, a company that hires individuals facing housing insecurity to house-sit vacant homes in gentrifying neighborhoods. Weekend Warrior employees live in properties that are being flipped, guarding them through the renovation, staging, open-house and inspection periods. CNK research shows that Los Angeles has the highest median home prices, relative to income, and among the lowest homeownership rates of any major city. As for rental units, Los Angeles has one of the lowest vacancy rates in the country and the average rent is $2,200 a month. The housing shortage, caused in part by restrictive zoning laws and NIMBYism, has exacerbated homelessness in Los Angeles, with about 66,000 individuals sleeping in cars, in shelters or on the street on any given night.

Ong on the Plight of Small-Business Owners

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge  at UCLA Luskin, was featured in the Chicago Reader discussing the obstacles facing small-business owners struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. Minority-owned businesses are especially vulnerable, Ong said, noting that the closure of these businesses impacts not only individual companies but ultimately the fabric of their communities. “The vacancies and opportunities created by minority business closures will speed up the transformation, and can lead to additional waves of business and residential displacement,” he said. The pandemic threatens to further gentrification in many communities of color, which “already suffer from a history of disinvestment and a lack of new investment, leaving them job-poor and underserved by businesses,” Ong said. “So, it will be a downward spiral, a process of further marginalization of disadvantaged communities.” Ong’s research was also cited in a Bloomberg News piece on the devastating impact of COVID-19 on U.S. dry-cleaning businesses, which are largely Asian-owned. 

Model Identifies High-Priority Areas for Vaccine Distribution

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, UCLA public health and urban planning experts have developed a predictive model that pinpoints which populations in which neighborhoods of Los Angeles County are most at risk of becoming infected. The researchers hope the model, which can be applied to other counties and jurisdictions as well, will assist decision makers, public health officials and scientists in effectively and equitably implementing vaccine distribution, testing, closures and reopenings, and other virus-mitigation measures. The model, developed by the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin and the UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy, maps Los Angeles County neighborhood by neighborhood, based on four important indicators known to significantly increase a person’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 infection — preexisting medical conditions, barriers to accessing health care, built-environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges. The research data demonstrate that neighborhoods characterized by significant clustering of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households and unmet medical needs are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. Knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources. The data can also provide insights to social service providers, emergency agencies and volunteers on where to direct their time and resources, such as where to set up distribution sites for food and other necessities. And importantly, identifying the areas and populations with the highest vulnerability will help decision-makers equitably prioritize vaccine-distribution plans to protect the most vulnerable. — Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon

Ong Examines Asian American Voter Trends

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, was featured in an NBC article discussing voting trends among Asian Americans. Early exit polls indicated that Asian American voters heavily favored Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden over President Donald Trump. While Biden performed well, the data suggests that Trump’s level of support among  Asian Americans did not decline. During the pandemic, anti-Asian sentiment across the country contributed to hate incidents as well as an increase in Asian American unemployment and business closings, Ong said. He expected Trump’s use of xenophobic and discriminatory language, such as “kung flu” and “China virus,” to decrease support for the president among Asian Americans. Instead, he noted that “changes have only happened marginally, and not a massive shift.” Ong concluded that “the racialized political divide has hardened, and we face a difficult next four years.”

Report Finds Spike in Food Insecurity, Patterns of Inequality

A new report from UCLA Luskin’s Center for Neighborhood Knowledge (CNK) documents a surge in food insecurity across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. By mid-July, more than 64 million people reported difficulty getting enough to eat — a level of food insecurity that is higher than that experienced during the Great Recession, the study found. Federal government programs did provide food, employment and housing assistance to help Americans weather the pandemic, but “that did not prevent rising crisis levels of hunger and food insecurity,” said CNK Director Paul Ong, co-author of the report. Households experiencing food insecurity increased from 10.5% in October 2019 to 18% in late April and to 26% by early July, according to the study, which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey. Researchers also identified patterns of inequality along ethnic and racial lines: Between April 23 and July 21, 2020, food insecurity was reported by 36% of Black and 31% of Latino households, compared to 16% of non-Hispanic white households. Shelter-in-place mandates contributed to the high level of food insecurity, with some respondents saying that health issues, transportation problems or fear kept them from going to the grocery store. For most, however, the problem was financial, with nearly 80% of those suffering food insecurity reporting that they could not afford to buy more food. “Using a strictly rational approach, increasing access to healthy food would reduce health care costs and the loss of lives, which would benefit all society,” said co-author Tom Larson, professor emeritus at Cal State Los Angeles. “Morally, providing aid is just the right thing to do.”  


Study Examines Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Small Businesses in L.A.’s Ethnic Neighborhoods

The UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge (CNK), in collaboration with Ong & Associates, recently released a new report on COVID-19 pandemic impacts on minority-owned businesses in Los Angeles. Previous CNK studies have documented the disproportionate adverse impacts of the pandemic on marginalized neighborhoods in labor and housing markets. The new report focuses on small businesses and examines whether the COVID-19 crisis disproportionately impacted local businesses in ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Answers to this question provide academic insights on racial systemic inequality and inform policy interventions, according to Paul Ong, co-author of the report and CNK director.  “If the disparities are significant, there are profound policy implications. Race-conscious government efforts to address systemic racism are needed to ensure an equitable economic recovery,” the researchers said. The team used location data to analyze foot traffic patterns to restaurants and retail locations in ethnic and comparison neighborhoods from February through September 2020. The results indicate an earlier and steeper decline in commercial activity in Chinatown and, while retail was resilient in ethnic neighborhoods, restaurants suffered greater declines on average than in comparison neighborhoods. Ong and colleagues found that overall, the ethnic neighborhoods collectively performed worse than the county as a whole prior to lockdown and performed no better than the county under shelter-in-place orders. The project was partially supported with grants from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs (funded by Southern California Grantmakers) and from the UCLA Asian American Studies Center (funded by the Stanley Kow Lau and Dora Wong Lau Endowment).