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Pierce on End to Water, Power Shutoffs for Low-Income Angelenos

A Los Angeles Times story on the decision by local utility officials to halt shutoffs of water and power for low-income customers who can’t pay their bills cited Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. The story cited research from the center showing that Los Angeles’ communities of color were disproportionately affected by utility debt and shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Protection from utility shutoffs for those enrolled in low-income discount programs will help lessen the debt burden for [L.A. Department of Water and Power’s] most vulnerable customers,” said Pierce, who leads UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. Pierce comments frequently on issues of water access and equity, including in a USA Today fact-checking article on false claims that water scarcity is an illusion. Climate change has created weather extremes, he said, but excess water in one place doesn’t help another place that’s parched by drought.

Astor on Accountability of Children Who Commit Violence

The Associated Press spoke with Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor for a story about the possibility of parole for the shooter who killed three classmates at a high school in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997. Michael Carneal, 14 at the time of the shooting, became eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison. His case has illuminated the debate about the age at which children should be held strictly accountable for their actions, Astor said, noting that the lack of consensus has led to a patchwork of laws across the country. Astor recently provided context to school safety issues including strategies to deter bullying and acts of violence, as reported in the San Jose Spotlight and the podcast Schoolutions. He is also part of an American Psychological Association task force that measured the impact of the COVID-19 era on teachers and other school staff, many of whom reported frequent threats and harassment and a desire to leave their jobs.


 

Tilly on Labor Needs Met by Relocated Migrants

The New York Times and NewsNation spoke to Urban Planning chair Chris Tilly for an article about immigrants who found steady work and a fresh start after being moved from Texas, Florida and Arizona to Democratic strongholds. While the high-profile relocation of thousands of migrants has created a burgeoning humanitarian crisis, straining the resources of cities trying to provide social services, it has also cast light on the economics of supply and demand. Many of the migrants are Venezuelans who have applied for asylum, allowing them to receive employment permits while their cases are pending. Others remain in the shadows, trying to find work without legal documentation. Many have found jobs in construction, hospitality, retail, trucking and other sectors facing worker shortages in an economy still recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “In most big cities, including the ones where governors are shipping migrants, employers are scrambling to find workers,” Tilly said. “They are meeting a need.”


 

Shifting Self-Identity During COVID Years

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke with the Associated Press about new U.S. Census survey results that provide detailed data on how life in the United States changed during the COVID-19 era. During the first two years of the pandemic, the number of people working from home tripled, the share of unmarried couples living together rose, and Americans became more wired, the article noted. In addition, the percentage of people who identify as multiracial grew significantly — strong evidence of shifting self-identity, Ong said. “Other research has shown that racial or ethnic identity can change even over a short time period. For many, it is contextual and situational,” he explained. “This is particularly true for individuals with a multiracial background.”


 

High Price of Used Cars Impacts Low-Income People Most, Blumenberg Says

Since the return to a semblance of normal life after the pandemic lockdown, rising demand for vehicles, electronic parts shortages and shipping delays have driven up prices for new and used cars alike. This leaves low-income people at a particular disadvantage, Evelyn Blumenberg, an urban planning professor at UCLA Luskin, told the Tampa Bay Times. “Low-income houses just do better with a car,”  she said. “It’s higher rates of employment, better neighborhoods.” Blumenberg pointed to her research linking cars to stability — even in regions with robust public transit  — and showing that losing a car can spell disaster for people whose finances are stretched thin. Preliminary research data also show more people taking out auto loans, with higher dollar amounts, in lower-income neighborhoods that are historically home to cash buyers, says Blumenberg, who is director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.


 

‘Transit Has to Bear the Burden of Other Social Policy Failures’

A Washington Post story about businesses departing Union Station in Washington, D.C., over safety concerns cited Jacob Wasserman, a research project manager at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin. The presence of homeless people and those suffering mental health crises has become more pronounced at the station, even as officials report that serious crime is down. Meanwhile, rail traffic has struggled to reach pre-pandemic levels. Union Station’s situation is not unique. Public transportation was one of the few climate-controlled options that stayed opened as the pandemic emerged, a time when public libraries closed and shelters implemented capacity restrictions, Wasserman said. “Transit has to bear the burden of other social policy failures, from housing to public safety,” he said. “And that’s hard for transit hubs because they were not designed for housing people … but it has become their issue, their responsibility by necessity.”


 

Tilly on Retail Workers’ Fight for Better Conditions

Grocery Dive spoke with Urban Planning chair Chris Tilly about evolving labor dynamics in the supermarket industry and other large retailers. Energized by a pandemic-spurred labor shortage, workers and labor advocates have made progress in their quest for better working conditions, including higher pay, guaranteed hours, and stronger health and retirement benefits. However, in an age of declining union membership and pressure on businesses to hold down expenses, it will be difficult for workers to make significant long-term gains in their relationships with large companies, Tilly said. In the past, publicly traded retailers were often controlled by families that could make workers a priority, but today they frequently answer to large-scale investors, like mutual fund managers, who are focused on quarterly results, he said. “Shareholders trying to squeeze dividends and increase share price … shifted the balance of power within public companies,” Tilly said.


 

Social Welfare Alumni Come Together to Support Students

A group of MSW alumni who have sustained a close bond developed during their time at UCLA Luskin turned their camaraderie into a commitment to support current students. Nine members of the class of 2011 launched the Together Crecemos Scholarship Fund to provide financial assistance to a first-year Social Welfare student who is committed to promoting equity, championing social justice and contributing to the community. The inspiration for the fund, whose name means “Together We Grow,” came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the group met virtually each week for support and encouragement. They inaugurated the scholarship program in 2021, and the first award was in the amount of $2,011, a nod to their graduation year. The award winner is Julia Cocilion, who impressed the alumni with her moving personal story and vision to engage in equitable social work practices, said Bridgette Amador, one of the alumni organizers. “It was a joy to learn more about the first-year students from their applications and to see the high caliber of students in the UCLA MSW program,” Amador said. “We hope to continue to grow the scholarship fund for years to come.” Pictured are members of the Together Crecemos alumni group: top, from left, Refugio Valle, Christy Perez, Malena Traverso French, Bridgette Amador and Carlos Amador; bottom, from left, Susana Ochoa-Valle, Jacqueline Perez Robledo, Jessica Tovar and Natalie Bibriesca-Mercado.


 

Public Policy Students Take On the Health Care Digital Divide Effort to widen access to telemedicine is one of 15 immersive projects aimed at developing policy solutions for real-world clients

By Mary Braswell

When Sophia Li decided to apply to graduate school to pursue her interest in health policy, she could not have known that the field would soon be upended by a protracted global health emergency.

Along with most of her peers in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ master of public policy program, Li began her studies in September 2020, when COVID-19 had already taken more than 1 million lives worldwide and the arrival of vaccines was still months away.

When the time came to embark on the public policy program’s exacting capstone project, Li chose to focus on an inequity brought into sharp focus by the pandemic: As they isolated in their homes, more people turned to telemedicine for their health care needs — but that option was not available to people who lacked computers, smart phones and internet service.

“The pandemic really did shine a light on the possibilities that telemedicine brings,” Li said, “but it also showed that, while the upper half are benefiting from this, what does this mean for the lower half that have these barriers to access?”

Li was part of a team that explored this question on behalf of their client, the nonprofit Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County. On an evening in May, Li and teammates Stacy Songco, who is earning a master of public policy and a doctorate in medicine, Xinyuan Qi, Ziyi Wei and Yixuan Yu boiled down a year’s worth of policy research and analysis into a 20-minute summary.

They were among nearly 70 second-year students to complete 15 applied policy projects this year, a rite of passage before receiving their UCLA master of public policy degrees. The capstone projects challenge students to find solutions to real-life policy dilemmas on behalf of clients in Los Angeles, across the state and nation, and around the world.

Networking with UCLA Luskin alumni had connected Li with the Community Clinic Association, which supports 65 neighborhood clinics in underserved areas. At the time, the nonprofit was “just dipping their toes into the digital divide issue,” she said.

The team spent months speaking with medical staff, local policymakers, internet service providers and, of course, the patients themselves. The conversations took place via Zoom because of COVID restrictions, but also in person, to make sure those without the means to gather virtually would be heard.

By year’s end, the team had developed more than a dozen recommendations, including the creation of a new role of digital navigator — a clinic staff member trained to guide individuals through the often-confounding world of broadband access, as well as benefits they may be entitled to, which change from ZIP code to ZIP code.

The students proposed a mechanism to receive federal funds for this new position. They stressed that information should be provided in multiple languages, and not just online but in printable formats, for those unable to access the internet. And they quickly determined that unlocking digital doors would open up a world of services and opportunities beyond telemedicine.

One of their focus groups spoke of their experiences with the California Lifeline program, which provides discounted landline and cell phone services to low-income households. While some found it confusing, “we had one unhoused individual who said, ‘Actually, you know what? I can walk you through all the paperwork, I can talk to you about how to use this,’” Li said.

“If people from the community could tap their experiences to guide others and receive compensation as a digital navigator, imagine the possibilities.”

The project culminated in a full published report for the Community Clinic Association and a formal presentation before Luskin faculty, staff and students, including the team’s advisor, Public Policy chair Martin Gilens.

Other capstone projects completed by the class of 2022 dealt with how to protect the rights of car wash workers, whether to expand the number of seats on the Los Angeles City Council, how to balance public health and humane treatment of asylum seekers at the border, as well as homelessness, mass transit, criminal justice and more.

“It’s an immersive experience. The students value that, and the marketplace also values that,” said Wesley Yin, an associate professor of public policy and economics who has served as coordinator and advisor in the applied policy projects program.

“There’s a professionalism that makes it much more than a class project,” Yin said. “It equips students with the rich experience and knowledge to seamlessly integrate into an organization.”

Li said her team emerged with unexpected areas of expertise. “The digital divide is a really complicated issue that has everything from some little niche funding source that you need to know about, to complex infrastructure issues and these really technical things that you need to understand,” she said.

As she looks toward graduation, Li reflects on the turns in her education that brought her to this point.

She transferred from Chaffey College to UC Merced, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in public health, then managed the rigors of earning her master of public policy at a time of pandemic. Selected as a Presidential Management Fellow, Li will spend the next two years in a program that helps train young scholars to become the next generation of leaders in federal government.

“It’s been a lot of these 90-degree turns that keep putting me on the right path,” Li said. “So let’s go explore new things.”

View photos of this year’s applied policy project presentations on Flickr.

Applied Policy Projects 2022

Yaroslavsky on Inflation’s Fallout on Local Elections

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at UCLA Luskin, spoke to KPCC’s “AirTalk” about the impact of Southern California’s widening economic gap on upcoming elections. Yaroslavsky cited results of the 2022 UCLA Quality of Life Index, which found a steep drop in residents’ satisfaction with life in L.A. County, largely due to concerns over inflation and public safety. “What stands out is that people are unhappy, they’re anxious, they’re angry, they’re concerned,” Yaroslavsky said. Lower-income households, hard hit by lost wages and rising inflation, have been slower to rebound from the financial shock of the COVID-19 era, the survey showed. “We are the ground zero in this country of the economic divide,” Yaroslavsky said. The Quality of Life Index also showed a decline in approval ratings of many local government officials. “Inflation, I think, is the most pernicious thing economically that we have in our society,” Yaroslavsky said. “That will have a political bite like nothing else.”