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A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

With record unemployment filings, federal stimulus will help, but more is needed

A photo of an article in the newspaper detailing the layoffs that continue to happen around the world.

COVID-19 will plunge the United States economy into a recession. Photo Credit: by James Yarema on Unsplash

As an economist and director of the California Policy Lab, Till von Wachter is continually spearheading research projects and policy recommendations related to labor and employment as well as homelessness, education and crime.

As the U.S. economy further slows because of how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many businesses to close, UCLA Newsroom asked von Wachter, who is also the associate dean of research for the division of social sciences in the UCLA College, to help parse through current employment statistics, why the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package called the CARES Act — which was signed into law March 27 — is so critical and what its immediate and far-reaching effects might be for U.S. workers and the economy.

How do you interpret the unemployment numbers that came out April 2?

The number of new claims to unemployment insurance — 6.6 million — was deeply alarming because that number is so much higher than what we’ve seen in previous recessions. Moreover, these numbers do not capture the many people out of work that are self-employed, have low wages, or for some other reason do not qualify for unemployment insurance. As CNBC noted, even in the worst week of the Great Recession, the number of claims were only 665,000 in March of 2009. The highest since the 1960s was 1,073,500 in the 1982 recession. Having studied unemployment, recessions and the policy responses to them for most of my academic career, I’m deeply concerned that if policymakers don’t act quickly, we could see a recession the likes of which our country has never experienced before. It will impact Americans for decades to come. There is still hope that the economy will turn back to normal after the Covid-19 pandemic is contained, but prolonged large-scale unemployment may be hard to reverse.

What will this mean for the U.S. economy and Americans who could be laid off in the coming weeks?

I have studied a range of situations where workers were hit by a sudden shock in the labor market, such as a job loss when a business suddenly lays off a large number of workers. The key here is to compare people who lost their jobs to a counterfactual of luckier workers who kept their jobs and that otherwise would have looked like them. The result from my research is that a worker with a steady job at a good employer that loses their job during a mass layoff in a recession will die 1.5 years sooner than they would have if they had not been laid off.  When you extrapolate that to an expected unemployment rate of 10% (approximately 10 million additional unemployed workers, which given the most recent week’s numbers may be a conservative scenario), my back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest a loss of 15 million life years. Beyond increased mortality, in separate research I have found these workers also suffer immediate and permanent earnings losses. Again, if those accrued to 10 million workers, it would amount to over $1 trillion dollars in earnings capacity lost over their lifetimes.

It’s also important to keep in mind more than 6 million individuals will graduate high school or obtain a college degree this year, and about 13 million workers age 16-24 are currently in the labor force. Hence about 20 million young individuals are of particularly high risk of exposure to a recession. Existing evidence suggests that unlucky labor market entrants suffer losses in earnings that last 10 to 15 years, depending on the severity of the recession. Yet, it appears their socioeconomic status declines again in middle age, and several studies have found that they experience higher rates of death over the long term. For example, entering the labor market during a large recession appears to reduce life-expectancy of young workers by about half a year. There would be an additional 10 million of life years lost from a prolonged recession.

Will the CARES Act help? 

The CARES Act is a good start. It includes significant funding spread out in a variety of ways to help sustain the economy while people practice safe distancing to defeat COVID-19. The additional pandemic unemployment assistance provided to the self-employed and others not covered by unemployment insurance benefits is of course an important aspect of the law. Yet, I argue in a recent proposal (PDF) that states need to act decisively and creatively to quickly scale up programs included in the CARES Act.

The funding Congress included for several programs that help firms to keep workers on their payroll could be a game-changer. This includes federal funding for “short-time compensation,” or STC, programs, sometimes also called work-sharing, as well as short-term emergency loans that include provisions for job stability.

In the same way that we are all “sheltering in place,” state employment departments — the agencies that administer unemployment benefits in every state — can use STC programs and equip companies to keep their employees in place. Under STCs, firms are able to reduce the hours of a large group of their employees (instead of laying just a few of them off), and employees can partially make up the difference in pay through receiving unemployment benefits. For a state like California that already has a functioning STC program, these STC benefits will be paid entirely by the federal government. This could lead to substantial saving for the state’s finances that will be likely very stretched in other ways.

Even better, the CARES Act also included a substantial subsidy for firms that were impacted by COVID-19 to help pay their workers’ wages. A small to mid-size firm that pays average wages could reduce the hours of their workers by 50% through shared-time compensation and have up to half of the remaining 50% of wages paid for by the federal government. This would be an instantaneous reduction of their wage bill by 75% while workers are kept on the job instead of flooding unemployment offices. Some businesses may find it hard to pay for even part of their workforce, perhaps because of large reductions in revenues or substantial fixed costs. The CARES Act also provides struggling businesses with the option to apply for short-term emergency loans through the Small Business Administration that would help them pay rent, wages and other operating costs. The key is that the repayment of these loans can be waived if the firm refrains from laying off their workers. Overall, firms now have a range of options to adjust to the economic conditions without laying off their workers.

How would states use short-time compensation?

Twenty-six states, including California, already have STC programs, meaning about 70% of the U.S. workforce could be covered. There is also funding in the law for the administrative costs of expanding these programs. For those 26 states, the federal government agreed to pay 100% of the benefits under STC programs.

Unfortunately, many employers are not currently aware of the program. Yet, states can be proactive in making the STC more attractive than layoffs to employers. Typically, if a firm lays off workers who receive unemployment insurance benefits, its payroll tax increases to help offset the costs to the unemployment insurance system. Yet, states could choose to pass on some of the cost-savings (from the federal government paying 100% of STC benefits) by committing not to raise the payroll tax for those firms that use STC instead of unemployment insurance. This incentive would help states to make a strong case for employers to use this program.

The key is to dispatch these funds quickly because failure to do so will likely lead to skyrocketing claims for unemployment insurance and serious bottlenecks in processing claims. It can also lead to substantial long-term effects on the income and health of people who are losing their jobs, young labor market entrants and others directly affected by the economic crisis. Unfortunately, many states’ STC programs are understaffed, such that there is a concern that bottlenecks may arise. In a recent proposal, I outline a proposal as to how states could quickly enroll thousands of firms despite these issues, such that these problems could also be surmounted.

The CARES Act also included $100 million in start-up grants for states that do not yet have STC programs, and if they do create them, the federal government will fund 50% of the benefits. While this is less than existing programs receive, it is still a great deal for workers, for firms, and for states because it means fewer layoffs, lower payroll taxes, and lower program expenditures, respectively.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Meredith Cohen.

Bringing Notre-Dame and Other Buildings Back to Life, UCLA Professor Reconstructs the Lost Monuments of Medieval Paris

A photo of Meredith Cohen.

Meredith Cohen, Associate Professor of Art History (Photo Credit: UCLA)

When Notre-Dame burned last April, people all over the world – Catholics and atheists, French people and Australians – felt it like a body blow. One of them was Meredith Cohen, associate professor of art history at UCLA. “I didn’t believe it was happening,” she says. “It was terrifying.”

Buildings, as Californians know all too well, burn all the time. But Notre-Dame has a special place in cultural history. Constructed primarily from the 11th to 13th centuries, Notre Dame’s early years coexisted, Cohen says, with the consolidation of Paris as “a center of wealth and cultural power.” Its religious weight – the cathedral is consecrated to the Virgin Mary and houses the Biblical crown of thorns – is just as substantial.

Now, centuries later, the question of how to restore the cathedral after the fire, which destroyed a 300-foot spire and badly damaged its wooden roof, is generating strong opinions. Journalists are seeking Cohen’s point of view; she’s also a member of the Scientifiques de Notre-Dame association, a scholarly group that advocates for a responsible restoration to the French government.

Cohen, grew up on L.A.’s Westside and was pleasantly surprised – after a decade in New York and Europe – to find herself returning to California in 2011 to take a post at UCLA. Besides teaching, research and her public role in the restoration, she is the Principal Investigator of a project called Paris, Past & Present, a site that allows her, with help from students, to virtually reconstruct the city’s medieval monuments.

“The majority of these buildings are lost,” she says. “Many were destroyed in the French Revolution. But we have a lot of information on them – fragments of drawings and engravings. I piece them together like puzzles in a 3-D environment.”

As for Notre-Dame, there is no consensus on the route forward. Because some of its iconic status arrived thanks to Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which rescued the Gothic style from disfavor, some want to return the cathedral to its brooding 19thcentury grandeur. Others want to leave it as is, damage included. “There are different schools of thought,” Cohen says. Her view is nuanced, and tries to honor both past and present without faking anything: In short, don’t pretend it’s 1860. “Rebuild it in a way that’s of our time,” she says, “but still respect the building’s proportions.”

A photo of Cecilia Menjívar.

Don’t call it ‘social distancing’

Opinion by Cecilia Menjívar, Jacob G. Foster and Jennie E. Brand

Editor’s Note: Cecilia Menjívar is Professor of Sociology and Dorothy L. Meier Social Equities Chair, Jacob G. Foster is Assistant Professor of Sociology, and Jennie E. Brand is Professor of Sociology and Statistics, all at the University of California at Los Angeles. The opinions expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) – Public health officials tell us to minimize physical contact in order to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. While the public, thankfully, is hearing the message, there is a hidden danger: As we retreat into our homes, we can lose sight of our essential connections to one another and forget about the plight of those most vulnerable to the fraying of social bonds.

It is important for us all to realize that when they recommend “social distancing” — a phrase that has rapidly entered the public lexicon — what health experts are really promoting are practices that temporarily increase our physical distance from one another in order to slow the spread of the virus.

They are not recommending social disconnection, social exclusion, or rampant individualism.

To combat those social ills, we should replace the term “social distancing” with the more precise “physical distancing.” In fact, when we practice physical distancing, we need social connectivity and social responsibility more than ever.

A photo of Cecilia Menjívar.

Cecilia Menjívar (Photo Credit: UCLA)

On Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced strict new measures for isolation (as California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom did the day before). In his televised remarks, Cuomo noted the difficulty — but crucial necessity — of maintaining physical distance from loved ones.

But even as he rolled out these drastic measures (including civil penalties) to ensure physical distance, he underscored the importance of maintaining social connections, touchingly recounting how he is doing this himself with his daughter, who was in isolation for two weeks.

“I was very aware of what she was dealing with and what she was feeling,” he said. “I tell you the truth I had some of the best conversations with her that I have ever had … we talked about things in depth that we didn’t have time to talk about in the past, or we didn’t have the courage or the strength to talk about in the past.” He urged people to be “mindful” that those “three word sentences can make all the difference: ‘I miss you;’ you know ‘I love you, I’m thinking about you; I wish I was there with you; I’m sorry you’re going through this’…”

Indeed, a large body of research points to the immense physical and mental health benefits of such social connections. Social isolation, by contrast, brings risk, especially for older folks.

In the difficult circumstances we are facing now, we can still connect and take social responsibility — even as we are trying to stay physically distant. Social responsibility and connectivity come in different forms, and they go hand in hand with empathy, compassion, and humanity.

So how do we remain socially connected and responsibly engaged at a time when physical distance is critical?

For one, we can use technology to strengthen friendships and support one another through telephone, social media, text, video chat, and even gaming. If you are able to work from home, consider taking the time you would have spent commuting to reach out to family, friends, and neighbors — even and especially those who might not have heard from you in a while.

People and organizations are also rapidly re-thinking membership and group participation in imaginative ways. They are holding virtual religious gatherings, and other social events — famously, now, singing together from balconies in Italy; streaming opera nightly (as the Metropolitan Opera began this week), having virtual parties, happy hours and celebrations.

Now is the time to unleash our capacity for collective creativity and find new ways to build meaningful community and connection.

We can also turn our creative energies toward social action. Seattle, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, is witnessing an impressive flourishing of outreach: people helping each other out. One Seattle resident — an artist — made a Facebook live video where he read guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Ethiopian-American community — in Amharic — in order to replace swirling rumor and misinformation with hard science.

Even the writing of this piece has been a group effort — by UCLA sociologists concerned that the call for “social distancing” risked doing unintentional harm — and needed to be replaced with the more precise language of “physical distancing.”

Physical (but not social) distancing still allows us to provide material support to the most vulnerable in many ways, like asking neighbors if we can pick up groceries, pet food, and other essentials for them — delivered from a safe distance — to minimize travel. We can refrain from panic shopping and the hoarding of essential resources, which creates artificial scarcity that affects everyone.

We can organize to provide enrichment for youngsters who are suddenly being homeschooled, as in the #openschools project. We can combat the spread of misinformation online and enhance the collective intelligence of social media discourse about Covid-19. And we can call on our leaders, employers, and corporations to provide needed resources and coverage for people who cannot afford to work from home so that they too can practice physical distancing.

In California, the most populous state in the country, Gov. Newsom has ordered residents to stay home and closed restaurants, bars, gyms, retail stores, offices, and all non-essential establishments to ensure physical distancing.

Gov. Cuomo’s mandate directs 75% of the New York workforce stay home. Similar mandates across other states will follow. These radical but necessary steps to ensure physical distance will result in significant job losses and likely a recessionary economy — and undoubtedly create considerable stress for millions of workers.

We must be particularly supportive of those among us who are vulnerable to contagion — unable to “physically distance”– precisely because of the work they do. This includes not only health care workers but also service and delivery workers, domestic and home care workers, cashiers, sanitation workers, janitors, store clerks, farm workers, and food servers who quietly but vitally sustain our collective lifestyles, even in a pandemic.

They cannot afford to be absent from work, cannot work remotely, and often do not have health insurance.

In large cities, like our own Los Angeles, these workers are often immigrants who also bear the weight of negative stereotypes and discrimination and often experience social and institutional exclusion. Our notions of social connection and responsibility must be big enough to include the vulnerable among us. As coronavirus has made abundantly clear, health is not an individual matter. Such diseases do not respect social or political divisions.

While the Covid-19 pandemic will eventually pass, its consequences will be with us for years. The fallout will disproportionately harm many of the same people who are suffering now: the socially and economically marginalized. But this is not inevitable.

Just as physical distancing can give us a fighting chance of combating this virus, finding creative and socially responsible ways to connect in crisis can have positive and long-lasting effects on our communities.

We must be physically distant now — our health depends on it. But we should redouble our efforts to be socially close. Our health depends on that, too.

This article originally appeared on CNN.com.

A photo of Professor Neil Garg

How did organic chemistry become so beloved at UCLA? Professor Neil Garg is glad you asked

People who don’t know Neil Garg may be shocked to learn he has made organic chemistry — the chemistry of molecules made of carbon — one of UCLA’s most beloved and popular undergraduate courses. Students wait for years to get into his class and do celebratory dances when they learn they’re enrolled.

Garg, the Kenneth N. Trueblood Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, recently explained how he made the subject so popular and shared some of his teaching techniques in an article published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. In 2018, Garg became the recipient of the country’s premier university teaching award, the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, given once every two years by Baylor University.

His undergraduate course Chemistry 14D, “Organic Reactions and Pharmaceuticals,” is very demanding. On exams, he asks students — mostly second-year, non-chemistry majors — to solve difficult problems he did not learn to solve until his first year of graduate school at Caltech. Students, for example, are asked to create a reasonable chemical synthesis of molecules they have never seen before. By the end of his course, more than two-thirds of the class can solve these problems.

A photo of Professor Neil Garg

Neil Garg reveals the teaching techniques that helped him to win the country’s premier university teaching award. (Photo Credit: Coral von Zumwalt)

“What is also striking,” Garg writes, “is that the students show impeccable creativity in their solutions, often providing reasonable responses that bear no resemblance to what is shown on the answer key, earning full credit. … My goal is always for students to do extraordinary things and learn to solve the hardest problems I can offer.”

In student surveys about Chemistry 14D more than two-thirds of the students rate their interest in organic chemistry as high, and fewer than 4% rate their interest in the subject as low. This is a dramatic shift from the start of the course when fewer than 10% reported a high rating, and more than 60% reported their interest as low.

In the article, Garg, who is also chair of UCLA’s department of chemistry and biochemistry, but not currently teaching organic chemistry, offers more than a dozen tips for teaching complex science. Among his practices:

-It’s essential to explain the relevance of organic chemistry to students and focus the class on problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity, rather than memorization. He teaches students that for each chemical reaction, there is a logic associated with how and why the reaction takes place. One of his students said she feels “like Sherlock Holmes when solving retrosynthesis problems.”

-He and his teaching assistants continually show students how much they care. Former student Elizabeth Matusov said, “He feels like a friend who happens to be teaching a really difficult class. He’s easily the best professor I’ve ever had. I would take any class with him. We all would.”

-He learns students’ names and calls on them by name, even in a class with 400 students. He stays in touch with hundreds of his former students, including some from 20 years ago.

-He teaches the fundamental vocabulary of organic chemistry and the rules of chemical reactivity, and performs in-class demonstrations with students.

-He poses questions that students answer with clickers, so he can immediately learn what they understand and what concepts require further explanation.

-More than 1,300 of his students have teamed up to make hundreds of music videos that have been viewed around the world hundreds of thousands of times. Many of the best are in Garg’s Chemistry 14D Music Video Hall of Fame, which features such student classics as “I Will Survive,” “Alkenes Are Used for These,” “Chem 14 Dreams Mashup” and “Say Alkane.” While teaching a semester at Baylor University last year, his undergraduate students teamed up to create 37 videos, including a chemistry adaptation of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”

-He has created educational resources for students, including BACON (Biology And Chemistry Online Notes), a set of fun and engaging online tutorials that make connections between organic chemistry and sports, health, genetics and popular television shows, among other topics. Other chemistry resources that are free and being used worldwide are a smartphone app called “Backside Attack” that teaches organic chemistry concepts; qrchem.net; and rschemistry.com. QR Chem, a molecule visualization app created by Garg and some of his UCLA students, is being used in more than 160 countries.

Summing up his teaching philosophy, Garg asks, “How did organic chemistry become one of UCLA’s most popular classes? Teaching is all about the students. We must challenge them, support them, make them feel connected to the class and give them opportunities to do amazing things.”

In an acknowledgment at the end of the article, Garg thanks, among others, his “thousands of inspiring students.”

Garg and his family live in a campus residence hall as part of UCLA’s faculty-in-residence program, which allows him to dine with students, advise them, go on trips with them and inspire them daily with his passion for chemistry.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a 3D atomic structure information of a 2D material that was previously inaccessible due to the limitations of 2D images. A 2D image is shown beneath the 3D atomic coordinates of molybdenum in blue, sulfur in yellow and rhenium dopants in orange.

UCLA-led research team produces most accurate 3D images of ‘2D materials’

A photo of a 3D atomic structure information of a 2D material that was previously inaccessible due to the limitations of 2D images. A 2D image is shown beneath the 3D atomic coordinates of molybdenum in blue, sulfur in yellow and rhenium dopants in orange.

Image showing the 3D atomic coordinates of molybdenum (blue), sulfur (yellow) and added rhenium (orange). A 2D image is shown beneath the 3D model. (Photo Credit: Dennis Kim/UCLA)

A UCLA-led research team has produced in unprecedented detail experimental three-dimensional maps of the atoms in a so-called 2D material — matter that isn’t truly two-dimensional but is nearly flat because it’s arranged in extremely thin layers, no more than a few atoms thick.

Although 2D-materials–based technologies have not yet been widely used in commercial applications, the materials have been the subject of considerable research interest. In the future, they could be the basis for semiconductors in ever smaller electronics, quantum computer components, more-efficient batteries, or filters capable of extracting freshwater from saltwater.

The promise of 2D materials comes from certain properties that differ from how the same elements or compounds behave when they appear in greater quantities. Those unique characteristics are influenced by quantum effects — phenomena occurring at extremely small scales that are fundamentally different from the classical physics seen at larger scales. For instance, when carbon is arranged in an atomically thin layer to form 2D graphene, it is stronger than steel, conducts heat better than any other known material, and has almost zero electrical resistance.

But using 2D materials in real-world applications would require a greater understanding of their properties, and the ability to control those properties. The new study, which was published in Nature Materials, could be a step forward in that effort.

The researchers showed that their 3D maps of the material’s atomic structure are precise to the picometer scale — measured in one-trillionths of a meter. They used their measurements to quantify defects in the 2D material, which can affect their electronic properties, as well as to accurately assess those electronic properties.

“What’s unique about this research is that we determine the coordinates of individual atoms in three dimensions without using any pre-existing models,” said corresponding author Jianwei “John” Miao, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “And our method can be used for all kinds of 2D materials.”

Miao is the deputy director of the STROBE National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. His UCLA lab collaborated on the study with researchers from Harvard University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Rice University.

The researchers examined a single layer of molybdenum disulfide, a frequently studied 2D material. In bulk, this compound is used as a lubricant. As a 2D material, it has electronic properties that suggest it could be employed in next-generation semiconductor electronics. The samples being studied were “doped” with traces of rhenium, a metal that adds spare electrons when replacing molybdenum. That kind of doping is often used to produce components for computers and electronics because it helps facilitate the flow of electrons in semiconductor devices.

To analyze the 2D material, the researchers used a new technology they developed based on scanning transmission electron microscopy, which produces images by measuring scattered electrons beamed through thin samples. Miao’s team devised a technique called scanning atomic electron tomography, which produces 3D images by capturing a sample at multiple angles as it rotates.

The scientists had to avoid one major challenge to produce the images: 2D materials can be damaged by too much exposure to electrons. So for each sample, the researchers reconstructed images section by section and then stitched them together to form a single 3D image — allowing them to use fewer scans and thus a lower dose of electrons than if they had imaged the entire sample at once.

The two samples each measured 6 nanometers by 6 nanometers, and each of the smaller sections measured about 1 nanometer by 1 nanometer. (A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.)

The resulting images enabled the researchers to inspect the samples’ 3D structure to a precision of 4 picometers in the case of molybdenum atoms — 26 times smaller than the diameter of a hydrogen atom. That level of precision enabled them to measure ripples, strain distorting the shape of the material, and variations in the size of chemical bonds, all changes caused by the added rhenium — marking the most accurate measurement ever of those characteristics in a 2D material.

“If we just assume that introducing the dopant is a simple substitution, we wouldn’t expect large strains,” said Xuezeng Tian, the paper’s co-first author and a UCLA postdoctoral scholar. “But what we have observed is more complicated than previous experiments have shown.”

The scientists found that the largest changes occurred in the smallest dimension of the 2D material, its three-atom-tall height. It took as little as a single rhenium atom to introduce such local distortion.

► Read a Nature analysis of the UCLA-led study

Armed with information about the material’s 3D coordinates, scientists at Harvard led by Professor Prineha Narang performed quantum mechanical calculations of the material’s electronic properties.

“These atomic-scale experiments have given us a new lens into how 2D materials behave and how they should be treated in calculations, and they could be a game changer for new quantum technologies,” Narang said.

Without access to the sort of measurements generated in the study, such quantum mechanical calculations conventionally have been based on a theoretical model system that is expected at a temperature of absolute zero.

The study indicated that the measured 3D coordinates led to more accurate calculations of the 2D material’s electronic properties.

“Our work could transform quantum mechanical calculations by using experimental 3D atomic coordinates as direct input,” said UCLA postdoctoral scholar Dennis Kim, a co-first author of the study. “This approach should enable material engineers to better predict and discover new physical, chemical and electronic properties of 2D materials at the single-atom level.”

Other authors were Yongsoo Yang, Yao Yang and Yakun Yuan of UCLA; Shize Yang and Juan-Carlos Idrobo of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Christopher Ciccarino and Blake Duschatko of Harvard; and Yongji Gong and Pulickel Ajayan of Rice.

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Army Research Office, and STROBE National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center. The scanning transmission electron microscopy experiments were conducted at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, a DOE user facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of the Owens Valley lakebed.

Effort to limit dust pollution in Owens Valley is advancing, but still room to improve

A photo of the Owens Valley lakebed.

The Owens Valley lakebed with currently approved dust mitigation measures. (Photo Credit: David Colgan/UCLA)

The century-long battle over water between California’s Owens Valley and Los Angeles is nothing short of epic.

In 1974, the conflict was immortalized in the film “Chinatown.” The latest chapter comes in a more stoic but important form: a 157-page report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The publication was created by a panel of experts that includes UCLA atmospheric dust specialist Gregory Okin.

Beginning in the late 1800s, William Mulholland quietly bought up land and water rights in Owens Valley, and in 1913, he started delivering the water from Owens Lake 233 miles south via aqueduct to a fast-growing Los Angeles.

The population of Los Angeles was 102,000 in 1910, but it had reached 319,000 in 1920 and then soared to 2 million by the middle of the century. Owens Valley, its lake drained of water, had become the largest source of dust in North America.

That dust included particulate matter measuring 10 micrometers or less in diameter, pollution that gets deep into people’s lungs and causes respiratory problems, particularly for sensitive groups. Ranchers, indigenous people and other residents of the valley were incensed, having lost their water and gained unhealthy air in its place.

The National Academies’ peer-reviewed report comes following decades of litigation that required the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to take actions to mitigate the dust problem. Over the past two decades, the department has spent $2 billion on the effort.

And researchers found good news: Efforts between the department and Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to control the issue have gone well. The work includes using gravel, managed vegetation and shallow flooding to mitigate dust. The air pollution district is a government agency responsible for protecting air quality in the east-central part of the state, near the Nevada border. It battled the Department of Water and Power in court for decades, but outside the courtroom the relationship is less contentious.

“The teams of people working on the ground together have been very successful,” said Okin, who is also a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “There are still air quality exceedances that occur, but they are drastically smaller in magnitude and frequency than they were prior to 2000.”

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The report also recommended that processes for minimizing dust established 20 years ago should be updated with new technology and processes that would also help save water and power and preserve cultural and aesthetic values.

“Despite the fact that they’ve done a great job, they’ve done it in an ad hoc manner,” Okin said, referring to the two agencies. “There’s not a lot of logic as to what is being done and where.”

A photo of a crowd of 30,000 people who watched the first water cascade through the aqueduct in the San Fernando Valley.

A crowd of 30,000 watched the first water cascade through the aqueduct in the San Fernando Valley. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of waterandpower.org)

The methods workers can use to mitigate dust are strictly controlled by a series of legal agreements. And testing new methods poses a challenge, because testing is prohibited in the areas of the valley in which dust pollution has been substantially controlled.

“The only place you can test new measures is in areas that don’t need to be controlled, which is crazy,” Okin said.

The report suggests that the air pollution control district and the Department of Water and Power work together to redesign the entire system of dust control in the lakebed.

“The current work is probably using more water, power and heavy machinery than it needs to,” Okin said.

Better managing the area could also be a boon for wildlife. Currently, one of the main approaches to mitigating dust in the area is to plant grass, which requires a lot of irrigation. Okin suggested other native species could replace grass in some areas, which would save water and create new living spaces for birds, rare aquatic life and other species wildlife.

The report also notes that planning for future efforts must account for also climate change, which is projected to increase temperatures and make precipitation patterns and dry spells more extreme. The 2017 rainy season, for example, flooded the valley with more water than the Los Angeles Aqueduct could take, causing water levels in the mostly-dry lake to rise substantially.

The competing interests of the two main players could make it difficult to improve the situation further, Okin said. While the air pollution control district is primarily interested in dust mitigation, the Department of Water and Power cares mostly about conserving water as a resource. Bringing new efficiency and sustainability to the process would likely require further involvement of third parties such as the academies that created the report.

It’s been more than a century since Mulholland said, “There it is, take it,” as the first Owens Valley water flowed through the aqueduct into Los Angeles. Now, the question is how the next century of this drama, which affects the lives of millions, will unfold.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of an I voted sticker.

USA Today harnesses UCLA political scientists’ ‘Nationscape’ data

A photo of an I voted sticker.

I voted sticker. Jessica Whittle Photography/Creative Commons 2.0. (Photo Credit: Jessica Whittle Photography)

As voters in 14 states, including California, go to the polls March 3 to vote for their preferred Democratic presidential nominee, information gathered by UCLA professors Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch will offer data-based insights about what voters care about most.

Every week, observations and analysis from their massive Nationscape voter data project will be published on USA Today. The newspaper’s first published report on this project, which is a partnership between UCLA, Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Fund and the market research firm Lucid, launched Feb 28.

“At a moment when everyone from voters to pundits is focused on who is ahead and who is most electable in November, our data about what people care about and how this varies across geography and demographic groups in the United States can hopefully inject a dose of substance in to conversations about electioneering and strategy,” Vavreck said. “We are delighted that USA TODAY wants to visualize our data for their readers in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election. With their reach, they are able to share insights from our Nationscape project with people in real time.”

Vavreck and Tausanovich have been deep in the throes of Nationscape data gathering since summer 2019, conducting about 6,250 interviews each week. By election time, they will have done 500,000 interviews asking people about policy questions and their opinions about the attributes of elected officials. The way the data is presented allows respondents to really think about what they care about most, and also consider what they are willing to give up to get it. Researchers are also tracking how those attitudes might change over time.

The USA Today story that posted Feb. 28 reveals a wealth of information on voter attitudes about gun control, immigration, middle class tax cuts, health care and more.

There are issues where attitudes overlap between Democrats and Republicans — background checks for gun ownership and middle class tax cuts — while topics like building a border wall shows a starker split based on party affiliation.

A tax cut for families who make less than $100,000 is a particularly fertile ground for commonality. According to Nationscape, 79% of Democrats agree with cutting taxes for families that make less than $100,000 per year, while 10% disagree. Among Republicans, 70% agreed, while 18% disagreed.

When it comes to Americans who are most likely to vote Democrat, the policy with the widest variance of support is Medicare for All, according to Nationscape data released last week.

For supporters of all the Democratic candidates still in play for Super Tuesday, a majority of these likely voters agree with the idea of Medicare for All, regardless of their chosen candidate. Sentiments run strongest among supporters of Bernie Sanders for whom it is a signature campaign issue, with 87% of his voters agreeing with Medicare for All. For Elizabeth Warren, 67% of her supporters agree with the policy. When it comes to Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg, 58% and 57% of their supporters, respectively, agree with Medicare for All.

An employment among homeless graphic.

Nearly 75% of L.A. County’s homeless previously worked in California

An employment among homeless graphic.

Illustration of a retail employee superimposed over a Los Angeles street map. (Photo Credit: California Policy Lab)

report published Feb. 26 by the California Policy Lab at UCLA sheds light on people’s employment histories before, during and after they received homelessness services in Los Angeles County.

The report’s authors studied data for more than 130,000 people who received homeless services from Los Angeles County. They found that 74% of people who experienced homelessness had some work history in California and that 47% had worked in the four years prior to becoming homeless.

But only 19% had worked in the calendar quarter they became homeless, and the average annual earnings for people who worked before experiencing homelessness was only $9,970 in the year before they became homeless — just 16% of the Los Angeles area median income of $61,015.

“There’s often an assumption that people experiencing homelessness are not working,” said Till von Wachter, a co-author of the report and faculty director of the California Policy Lab at UCLA. “While it’s true that some individuals in our study had not worked in a long time, a substantial number — close to half — were working within four years before entering homelessness. These recent workers had a higher likelihood of returning to work after receiving services and their average earnings were also higher.”

Von Wachter, a UCLA economics professor, said the study’s findings — particularly those on who is most likely to work after enrolling for homeless services — could be used to tailor workforce programs that would help people who are receiving services to find employment and to increase the earnings of homeless service clients.

The study’s three main findings:

The likelihood of people finding employment after they enrolled in homeless services varied widely based on demographic factors and work history. For example, people who were recently employed before becoming homeless and younger people were more likely to be employed after homelessness. To a lesser degree, adults in families, and people without mental and physical health issues also had higher employment rates than the average for the entire sample. Understanding those differences could help officials better target services to those who are most likely to find gainful employment.

The employment rates for certain groups of people in the study improved within the two-year period after they enrolled to receive homeless services, although the authors pointed out that the relationship between the two facts may not be causal. For example, people in transitional housing and people who came from stable housing saw increases in employment rates after enrolling.

Sixty-five percent of the people in the study worked in four broad job categories prior to enrolling in homeless services: 28% in administrative support, waste management and remediation services; 14% in health care and social assistance fields; 12% in accommodation and food services; and 11% in retail. That finding could help inform the types of job training and placement programs that could help prevent homelessness or help people transition out of homelessness.

For the study, the researchers used data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority from 2010 to 2018 for people who were 18 to 70 years old at the time they enrolled for services, and state employment records from the California Employment Development Department for 1995 to 2018.

The authors wrote that although report should improve understanding of employment trends among people who receive homeless services in Los Angeles, more research is needed to develop specific policy recommendations. Future research should examine whether job loss is the direct cause of homelessness and for whom, and how workforce and training programs could either prevent homelessness or accelerate exits from homelessness.

The California Policy Lab creates data-driven insights for the public good. Based at UCLA and UC Berkeley, it partners with researchers at other University of California campuses, as well as with California’s state and local governments to generate scientific evidence that solves California’s most urgent problems, including homelessness, poverty, crime and education inequality.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

 

Ellen DuBois, professor emerita of history in the UCLA College and author of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.”

Historian’s new book traces three generations of suffragists

Ellen DuBois, professor emerita of history in the UCLA College and author of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.”

Ellen DuBois observes that expanding the vote is still not something established political leaders are eager to do. (Photo Credit: Scarlett Freund)

They persisted.

August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which ensured that all American women could vote in federal elections. Ellen DuBois, UCLA professor emerita of history, has devoted her academic life to the stories of the women (and men) whose unrelenting, passionate and organized advocacy withstood 75 years of shifting partisan politics to finally enfranchise women in the U.S.

Written for anyone who cares about rights in America, her latest book, “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote,” which came out Feb. 25, takes a comprehensive look at the incomparable effort.

Her storytelling illuminates the lives and efforts of three generations of suffragists, as her prose passes the baton from woman to woman, grandmother to mother, mother to child. She celebrates the efforts of such champions as Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, who were critical in the final push into the 20th century, and she illustrates how African American women — led by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell and Mary Ann Shadd Cary — demanded voting rights, even when white suffragists ignored them.

In a presidential election year, and as primary voters head to the polls for Super Tuesday on March 3, it is fitting to heed activist Gloria Steinem’s praise for DuBois’ work:

“Ellen DuBois tells us the long drama of women’s fight for the vote, without privileging polite lobbying over radical disobedience — or vice versa. In so doing, she gives us a full range of tactics now, and also the understanding that failing to vote is a betrayal of our foremothers and ourselves.”

We asked DuBois to share some of the key takeaways from “Suffrage.”

The Americans who took up the fight for women’s right to vote were originally proponents of “universal suffrage,” which would have meant a constitutional amendment affirming votes for every American citizen over the age of 18 — regardless of race or gender. How different might this battle have been if that original purpose had been successful?

The Constitution gives little control to the federal government over voting — just times, places, etc. — and none whatsoever over who gets to vote. The three voting amendments, including the 19th, barely tamper with that, only forbidding the states from named disenfranchisement. And as we know from the history of African American voter suppression, those are easy to get around.

If the suffragists’ early attempt to reframe voting as a positive right of national citizenship [had been successful], much of what we suffer today by way of voter suppression — which comes from the states — would no longer be legal or constitutional. We would have universal enfranchisement, which we cannot say we have now.

A photo of the cover of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.”

“Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote” Photo Credit: Simon & Schuster

This book is also a fascinating rendering of the kaleidoscopic nature of American partisan politics. What was the biggest obstacle to women’s suffrage?

This is a question that suffragists and historians have long pondered. General male opposition to women taking a place in politics, as well as women’s hesitation about leaving their traditional roles, certainly played a part.

But as I studied the last few decades of the movement, I was especially struck by the determination of politicians to keep women without votes — both at the national level, fighting against amendment passage, and the state level, opposing ratification, the ultimate obstacle.

This was the case even when it was clear to the final opponents that women’s suffrage was inevitable. Politicians’ opposition certainly reflected their own conservative ideas about who women were — their delicate wives and the pesky radicals who wanted the vote — but it was also a political calculation. The suffragists and other social activist women had developed a solid reputation as nonpartisan reformers, and politicians didn’t want that. Finally, it was impossible to predict which party enfranchised women would favor. It turned out to be both.

As we know from our own times, expanding the vote is still not something established political leaders are eager to do.

By the time the 19th Amendment was passed, millions of women already had the right to vote in federal elections, thanks to state constitutions. By 1919, women in Wyoming and Colorado had voted in five or six presidential elections. Western states like California were critical to eventual nationwide suffrage. Who were some of the most important suffragists who helped win the vote in California?

California, when it amended its state constitution to enfranchise women in 1911, was the sixth state to do so — and by far the most important.

Maud Younger was a wealthy San Franciscan, among those young people known as “new women” for their eagerness for modern lives and new experiences. She left home, went to New York City, worked as a waitress and trade union activist, and returned to California to organize working women. They called her the “millionaire waitress.” She was responsible for getting the brewers union on board, which helped to overcome suffragists’ reputation for being anti-alcohol.

Sarah Massey Overton, an African American woman from San Jose, not only organized her area’s African American community, but — unusual for these years — worked closely with white suffragists in the interracial Political Equality League.

Hispanic Californian suffragists were harder to trace. I located a very interesting woman, Maria de Lopez, whose family was in California before its statehood. As of 1910, she was a college graduate and taught at UCLA and later was a scholar of Spanish-language literature. Fascinating!

Multiple other amendments to the U.S. Constitution were ratified before the 19th. How did the push for these amendments affect the fight for women’s suffrage? Why was the 17th Amendment critical to the eventual passage and ratification of the 19th?

The reconstruction amendments 14th and 15th were crucial: the latter for omitting women from the expansion of the franchise, which angered suffragists; the former for establishing — for the first time — national citizenship, which led hundreds of suffragists to claim the right to vote in the 1870s including Susan B. Anthony.

It was several decades before other amendments were added. The 17th made the election of senators dependent on the people’s vote, when previously they were appointed by state legislators. This played a role in breaking the final opposition to the women’s suffrage amendment in the upper house. The 18th Amendment [prohibition of alcohol] took this contentious issue, often associated with women voters, off the table and removed an issue of the opposition.

Do you have a favorite suffragist? If so, who and why?

I’m often asked this. I do love Elizabeth Cady Stanton for her brilliant insights into the multifaceted nature of women’s subordination and her vision for broad freedoms for women. These days she is remembered more for her racist and elitist outbursts against men who voted before women, but I think she has more to offer us than just that. These women are all so great, so varied, so brave, so determined — “nevertheless they persisted.” I love them all.

Your book also illustrates the power of an archive. Susan B. Anthony had the brilliant foresight to establish a multivolume history of the movement — including photographs and images of suffragists — and then donated copies to libraries and universities for posterity. Obviously this was critically important to historians like yourself and Eleanor Flexner, who wrote 1959’s “Century of Struggle.” What other stories are waiting to be told from this archive? What are you working on next?

The suffrage movement is unique for its geographical breadth and depth. It lasted so long, and constitutional amendments, which are contested like this one, require organized activism in virtually every state. There is so much more to be said about suffragists in our country.

A second issue is a more complex one: the varied and painful history of racism within the suffrage movement, which lasted from the years of emancipation through the height of the Jim Crow era.

Finally, and this is one of my unfinished projects, women’s enfranchisement was an international issue. In almost every country where women have received the right to vote, they have organized to fight for it. It was rarely given. I’m working on that in the interwar years.

My next big project is a major biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who has never really had one. I’m going to give her that.

DuBois is on a speaking tour for the book, including several upcoming events in town.

March 7 at 2 p.m. — “The Surprising Road to Woman Suffrage” illustrated book lecture at Los Angeles Public Library’s Central Library

March 8 at 1 p.m. — “The Right to Vote Then and Now” panel discussion at Royce Hall. Also featuring Adam Winkler, Brenda Stevenson, Katherine Marino, Sheila Kuehl and Sandy Banks.

March 14 at 11 a.m. — “The Surprising Road to Woman Suffrage” Caughey Foundation Lecture at the Autry Museum of the American West

March 15 at 2 p.m. — Book presentation with Jessica Millward, UC Irvine associate professor of history, and Culver City Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells at the Wende Museum

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of Professor Tracy Johnson.

Professor Seeks to Provide All Students with a Pathway to Research Success

A photo of Professor Tracy Johnson.

Professor Tracy Johnson, Keith and Cecilia Terasaki Presidential Endowed Chair in the Life Sciences, with undergraduate students in her research lab. (Photo credit: UCLA Strategic Communications.)

When Tracy Johnson was an undergraduate working in a lab at the University of California at San Diego, she found herself suddenly jolted. Conducting research on gene function using fruit flies, she realized she was involved in something deeper and more fulfilling than a traditional classroom experience. “The idea that I was learning things that nobody else knew, that I could make some contribution,” she says now, “that was a game-changer.”

Professor Johnson arrived at UCLA College’s Department of Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in 2014, aiming to bring this same sense of purpose to others. She founded the UCLA-HHMI Pathways to Success, a program that seeks to give students from diverse backgrounds an “authentic research experience, early on, and in a prolonged way.” For years, she says, students of color and those who were the first in their family to attend college pursued STEM degrees at equal rates as other students but left STEM majors at a higher rate.” “I think that has less to do with preparation,” she says, “and more to do with not seeing themselves as part of a scientific community. Pathways was designed to rethink that.” The goal was to help students understand they belonged and had important contributions to make.

In building the program, Johnson looked around the country to find what worked best, and bring it to UCLA. She was interested not just in lab work but in mentoring as well.

Pathways students participate in a lab course dedicated to Johnson’s field, gene expression. The DNA in every cell of a given plant or animal are identical. Expression is the process by which specific segments of the DNA, genes, get turned on.  This process allows cells to perform specific functions. For example this process can tell a cell to become part of a muscle, part of the bran, and so on.

It’s a lot to throw first-year students into, she acknowledges. “They’re freshmen, on campus for barely 10 weeks if it’s winter quarter. Some have never taken AP biology. It’s ambitious, but they rise to the occasion.”

In fact, she’s expecting to publish some of the student research in an academic journal in 2020. Pathways has now enrolled close to 100 students, and they’ve taken on more and more responsibility as the years have passed. Some have gone on to doctoral programs, others to medical school. “There isn’t anything quite like what we do,” she says. “I think it’s a model for how to think about student success.”

Find out more about UCLA College’s innovative Pathways program.