A New York Times editorial on inequalities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and the urgency of building a more resilient nation cited research by Public Policy Chair Martin Gilens on the distribution of political power. “This nation was ailing long before the coronavirus reached its shores,” the editorial stated, noting that the fragility of U.S. society made it particularly vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19. Policies designed not in the common interest but to protect the wealthy are at the root of this reality, the editorial argued. It cited research from Gilens and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University showing that between 1981 and 2002, policies supported by at least 80% of affluent voters passed into law about 45% of the time, while policies opposed by at least 80% of those voters passed into law just 18% of the time. The views of poor and middle-class voters had little influence, the study found.
By Les Dunseith
The national response rate to the U.S. Census is lagging well behind where it was at a similar point a decade ago, according to an analysis spearheaded by Paul Ong, a research professor and director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge.
Ong said shutdown orders related to the novel coronavirus pandemic seem to be a factor in suppressing the response rate, which is now at least 11 percentage points lower than it was for the 2010 census through late April.
The UCLA researchers noted that the self-response phase of the current census began March 12, which happened to coincide with mandated restrictions on gatherings and physical movements imposed in the state of Washington by Gov. Jay Inslee — some of the earliest such rules in the nation. His order also closed all schools in the three counties most affected by the coronavirus at the time.
Within a week, even more extreme physical distancing measures were in effect in states such as Washington, California and New York — and soon throughout the nation — as public officials ordered businesses to close and citizens to remain at home in an attempt to slow the advance of COVID-19.
“April 1 was designated as Census Day in an effort to highlight the importance of a complete and accurate count of American citizens,” said Ong, who has served as an adviser to the U.S. Census Bureau as part of his scholarly activities at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “But that designation proved to be ceremonial at best, drawing little media notice or public attention with the vast majority of Americans hunkered down at home as a result of the shelter-in-place strategy.”
Ong said his findings are worrisome and seemingly at odds with the positive message coming from the Census Bureau. A bureau email blast sent in late April, for example, declared “an important milestone in the 2020 Census. More than half of all the households in the country have responded — that’s 77,500,000 households so far!”
Ong said crossing the halfway mark in the census count is less impressive when one looks below the surface. He noted, for example, that on April 18, the New York Times reported that the COVID-19 crisis had seriously hampered the response to the census, causing the Census Bureau to adjust its timeline and prolong the collection process to counter any shortfalls. The agency had earlier extended deadlines to complete its operations.
“The adjustments are framed and justified as necessary to protect the health of census workers and the public, which is obviously valid and prudent,” Ong said. “But nothing was mentioned about the need to extend census operations because of any possible lack of progress.”
The 2020 census is the first to allow people to respond online, by phone or by mail, while the 2010 census was limited to mail responses only.
In its analysis, the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge compared the overall response rate so far to the mail-in rate at the same point for the 2010 census. The researchers looked at both the 2010 mail-response rate — the total number of filled-in and returned forms divided by the total number of addresses in the government’s master address file — and the mail-return rate, the number of returned forms divided only by the number deliverable and non-vacant addresses.
When the three measures are plotted on a graph, it is apparent that a slowdown in 2020 census responses coincides with the timing of the COVID-19 crisis. By March 22, the 2020 rate had slipped below the rate of return for both of the 2010 measures and has continued to lag since then. Since April 24, the date of the email blast from the Census Bureau, the 2020 response rate has never gotten closer than 11 percentage points below both of the 2010 measures, the UCLA analysis shows.
The researchers note that because the 2010 mail-return rate has a smaller denominator, it has a higher value than the 2010 mail-response rate. According to the Census Bureau, the 2010 mail-response is more compatible with how the 2020 response rate is being calculated.
Besides the COVID-19 pandemic, other factors may be hindering 2020 responses, Ong said. Those barriers may include a lack of access to the internet, which is the primary mode of data collection for the 2020 census; a nationwide increase in vacant and seasonal housing; and the growth of the historically harder-to-reach Hispanic population.
The decennial census is required so that congressional seats can be reapportioned to account for geographic shifts in the population. The official count is also used for redrawing electoral district boundaries for congressional, state legislative and local jurisdictions. Equally important, the numbers are used in allocating public funds and helping to provide a clearer picture of the nation’s population and housing stock.
Unless steps are taken immediately to boost response rates, Ong is worried that the 2020 census is experiencing “a real and present danger of having one of the most incomplete census enumerations in history.”
Based on historical precedent, the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge analysis predicts that an undercount would disproportionately affect low-income residents, people of color and immigrants.
“The Census Bureau is not to be blamed for the dire circumstances that have upended everyone’s life,” Ong said. “What is required now, however, is mobilizing community organizations and groups to work collaboratively with public agencies to minimize the damage. We need to focus scarce resources to do everything in our power to ensure inclusion in the census of society’s most marginalized people and neighborhoods.”
Questions about the study may be directed to Paul Ong at firstname.lastname@example.org
To inquire about the proprietary data used to build the chart, contact Les Dunseith at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, email@example.com
Associate Professor of Public Policy Randall Akee was featured in an article on Turtle Talk about his research on the infection rates of COVID-19 on American Indian reservations. Akee joined a team of researchers to investigate the relationship between community and household characteristics and the rate of COVID-19 spread on tribal lands. They found that the rate of COVID-19 cases per 1,000 people was more than four times higher for populations residing on reservations than for the U.S. as a whole. Furthermore, they discovered that COVID-19 cases were more likely to occur in tribal communities with a higher proportion of homes lacking indoor plumbing and less likely to occur in tribal communities where households spoke English only. Akee’s team recommended government action to “strengthen tribal public health and household infrastructure and provide potable water and culturally relevant information” to protect American Indian communities from COVID-19 and future pandemics.
Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, was featured in a Los Angeles Times column discussing the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on traffic levels in Los Angeles. During the pandemic, vehicle volume has been reduced by 40% and more in parts of the city, air quality has improved, and traffic is moving 12% to 30% faster. Nevertheless, urban planning experts doubt the roads will stay empty when the economy reopens. Wachs pointed to congestion pricing as the only proven way to get people to drive less. ”The only strategy that works 100% of the time is charging people more money,” he said. “Charge more to park, charge to drive, quadruple the cost of gasoline, impose congestion pricing.” Traffic jams in the Sepulveda Pass could be eliminated by charging people $10 to make the trip, he said. However, many politicians are hesitant to embrace congestion pricing because they don’t believe their constituents want it.
Professor Ron Avi Astor and Ph.D. student Kate Watson of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare teamed up with Professor Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University to create a set of questionnaires to assess how well teachers, students, parents and others are coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. The questionnaires have been widely distributed to social workers, educators and psychologists at no cost. “Schools can respond better to the most pressing needs of their students, teachers and families amid the COVID-19 pandemic by hearing the entire community,” Astor told Ampersand, a publication of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Sample questionnaires, available at these links for teachers, students and parents, may be used in conjunction with abridged versions of two books co-authored by Astor and Benbenishty: “Mapping and Monitoring Bullying and Violence: Building a Safe School Climate” and “Welcoming Practices: Creating Schools That Support Students and Families in Transition.” Astor and Benbenishty will also appear at a free UCLA Luskin Summit webinar on “A New Normal for Schools During the Pandemic” on Monday, May 4, at 9:30 a.m. To register and attend the webinar, visit this link.
Here is Ampersand’s full interview with Astor:
By Lauren Hiller
A new UCLA study found that being a woman, identifying as LGBTQI, having a long commute, or waiting in poorly lit areas significantly increased the likelihood of being sexually harassed on public transit.
In the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies report, “Transit Safety Among University Students,” Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning and researchers sought to better understand the characteristics of individuals and circumstances that increased their risk of harassment during their public transit journeys.
Professor Loukaitou-Sideris reported the findings during the Lewis Center’s April 3 InterActions LA conference, which brought together researchers, transit agencies and community activists around the topic of women’s safety in transportation.
The study surveyed 1,284 students from UCLA and the California State University campuses of Los Angeles and Northridge. According to the report, this population was chosen because university students are typically more transit-dependent than the general public, and because their young age may make them more vulnerable to victimization. Los Angeles was one of numerous cities studied as part of a global research project.
Much of the preexisting data on perceived safety and incidents of sexual harassment on transit in Los Angeles did not identify such characteristics as gender, sexuality and race. This study also uniquely delved into when in the course of a transit journey — walking to or from a station, waiting for the bus or train, or on the actual vehicle — sexual harassment occurred.
According to the study, 72% of respondents experienced some form of harassment on a bus, compared to 48% on rail, with women experiencing far more numerous instances than men. However, very few students (10%) reported the experience to either law enforcement or transit agencies. And more than half of women reported changing how they dressed or adjusting their travel patterns, such as riding only during daytime or waiting in well-lit areas.
Because women make up more than half of transit riders in the United States, Loukaitou-Sideris said it’s imperative to prioritize their safety.
“Their safety is an important concern that we need to tackle if we want to have more women riding transit and — for women who are already captive transit riders — riding transit more comfortably and without fear,” she said. “I think everyone deserves that in our transit systems.”
Safe Transit During COVID-19
The challenges that women and vulnerable populations face have only been magnified by the current COVID-19 crisis. Under statewide and local “safer at home” orders, it is frequently low-income women of color who are still traveling to work to provide essential services to the rest of the region, according to the other panelists at the InterActions event, including speakers from Pueblo Planning, Los Angeles Walks and Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles (ACT-LA).
“COVID-19 has revealed that our transit system is a lifeline,” said Mariana Huerta Jones, senior coalition and communications manager at ACT-LA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring equitable access to public transit infrastructure and funds.
During the InterActions presentation, Huerta Jones said public transit is often the only transportation option available to low-income residents working in jobs deemed essential in industries such as grocery stores, hospitals and sanitation.
Ensuring Women’s Safety
Other InterActions speakers like Monique López, founder and social justice planner at Pueblo Planning, spoke about the importance of including the voices of marginalized communities when crafting policy recommendations. And Daisy Villafuerte, advocacy and engagement manager from Los Angeles Walks, discussed grassroots efforts to improve transit experiences.
Presenting the next steps from LA Metro’s recent “Understanding How Women Travel” report, Meghna Khanna, senior director of the Countywide Planning and Development Department, and her team found that safety is still the biggest concern and barrier to riding transit for all women riders. While 60% of women felt safe traveling on Metro during the day, that number decreased to 20% at night.
Khanna and her team at LA Metro found that women frequently mentioned increased police presence as a solution that would help them feel safer on transit; however, not all transit riders agree.
“For many people of our community, more police doesn’t mean more safety. It can actually mean the opposite. It can mean racial profiling, harassment, criminalizing of poor or houseless individuals,” Huerta Jones said.
Solutions beyond policing — such as increased service frequency, improved cleanliness around stations, and the presence of non-police transit ambassadors — are just first steps in ensuring women can use transit without fear.
Assistant Professor of Public Policy Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld was featured in a Well and Good article about the role of social media in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dwindling trust in traditional media outlets has prompted people to turn to social media for news, making it difficult to discern credible sources from non-credible sources. The WHO has described the spread of hazardous false information as an “infodemic.” Steinert-Threlkeld commented that in countries like Iran and China, where information is censored, citizens have been turning to banned networks in search of accurate information. “Because it was clear to individuals [in China] that what they were seeing was different from what state media was saying, people very quickly downloaded VPNs [to access banned sites like Twitter], which we’ve seen in past crises as well,” he explained. “What we’ve seen in a lot of provinces, especially where Wuhan is, is a tripling in the number of users accessing Twitter once the quarantine happened.”
Public Policy Professor Mark Peterson was featured in a virtual interview for the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law about his article “The ACA a Decade In: Resilience, Impact, and Vulnerabilities.” Peterson’s article highlighted the strengths and vulnerabilities of the Affordable Care Act 10 years after its enactment. In the interview, he pointed to the polarized political environment and the complexity of the bill as sources of weakness. Although the ACA started off as a Republican idea, he explained, stark partisanship prohibited modern Republicans from supporting it in the Senate. Peterson also mentioned that although almost everything in the bill was extremely popular, the public didn’t understand what was in it. “The strategy of building a health care reform plan not by replacing anything but by building on the existing structures resulted in an enormously complicated bill,” he said. “Most people did not know to what extent they were going to be affected by it.”
Public Policy Professor John Villasenor interviewed UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh for a podcast episode on “Civil Liberties in an Epidemic.” The episode, part of a series from the UCLA Institute for Technology, Law and Policy, was featured on Volokh’s blog for Reason magazine. Villasenor raised questions about border controls, legal bans on nonessential medical procedures and restrictions on religious assembly. The two also discussed location tracking on mobile phones to enable the government to monitor virus contamination, which raises concerns about privacy as well as unintended uses of the information. Volokh said that the 1905 Supreme Court decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts has come to be “understood not just as a precedent in favor of compulsory vaccination laws, but also as a precedent in favor of other restraints on liberty.” He noted that some restraints that would not be constitutionally permissible in normal times are permissible within the context of the pandemic.