USC report offers ‘sobering picture’ of social, economic disparities worsened by pandemic in L.A. County

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People wait for a bus in a neighborhood of East Los Angeles, Aug. 7, 2020 in Los Angeles, California during the coronavirus pandemic. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

People wait for a bus in a neighborhood of East Los Angeles, Aug. 7, 2020 in Los Angeles, California during the coronavirus pandemic. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

One in three Los Angeles County residents worried about losing their home in 2020 — one of several findings in USC research released Wednesday that shows how the pandemic has worsened already concerning disparities in access to education, housing, food and health care.

As the most populated county in the U.S., L.A. has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, experiencing some of the worst rates of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths nationwide. It falls just behind New York City in U.S. metro areas that have seen the highest case rates and job losses, according to research used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Infection rates and the number of patients dying surged through the winter, peaking in January as health officials warned of hospitals potentially becoming overwhelmed. On Jan. 11, after infection and fatality rates reached their highest levels yet, County Health Director Barbara Ferrer called it “the worst disaster our county has experienced for decades.”

The biggest impact, however, has been felt by lower income residents and communities of color — a reality long seen in data from the Department of Public Health. The new research out of USC’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research offers a glimpse into some of the effects felt.

Through fall of last year, researchers surveyed 1,326 L.A. County residents randomly selected from households throughout the region.

Unaffordable housing costs and unequal access to education are among the most concerning issues detailed in the 23-page report. The results “paint a sobering picture of the social and economic conditions” in the county, the report states.

Living in denser, crowded living conditions and being an essential worker have been described by Ferrer and other health experts as among the biggest risk factors in contracting the virus — especially given housing costs in L.A. Nonwhite residents, particularly Latinos, are mostly likely to face these conditions putting them at risk, according to health officials and the new data out of USC.

“With respect to housing, we see that the high cost of housing in L.A. hurts renters and non-white
residents the most,” the report states.

About 55% of Latino residents and 40% of Asian residents live in overcrowded homes, according to the USC report. Across the county, about 44% of tenants pay more than half their income on rent, the research shows, compared to a national average of 25% reported by a Harvard University study in 2018. Nearly two thirds of renters in the county spend more than 30% of their wages on housing.

And last year, about one in three tenants who moved did so because they were evicted or displaced.

Such high costs leading to crowded conditions can serve to further spread the virus, as experts have said, potentially leading to more virus-related restrictions and closures that lead to more job losses. Since the start of the pandemic, L.A. County’s economy has been among the hardest hit nationwide.

A survey in April, just weeks into the statewide lockdown, revealed less than half of the county’s residents still had jobs. Two months later, the Los Angeles–Long Beach–Anaheim metro area reported the nation’s highest unemployment rate, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Economist Jason Ward, associate director of the RAND Center for Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles, wrote in August that the gap in money earned by lower income L.A. families and those with higher incomes increased almost fivefold in just the first three months of the pandemic.

“The Los Angeles region has among the worst income inequality in the nation, and that divide is mirrored in the pandemic’s effect on employment,” Ward wrote, stating the average unemployment rate was 2.1% for higher income families and 6.6% for lower income families before the pandemic.

From April through June, he wrote, that rate swelled to around 28% for lower income families and just 11% for households earning above $100,000.

According to the USC survey, one in five L.A. County residents believe they are not likely going to be able to make their house payments on time over the next six months.

The report also highlights how unequal access to education has led to changes in decision-making among L.A. County parents. Black parents are less likely than parents in any other racial group to send their children to neighborhood public schools, according to the research.

While two thirds of all parents send their kids to these schools, just around half (52%) of Black parents do, the USC report states. The rest instead opt for charter, private and online schools. By comparison, 64% of white residents, 66% of Asian and 69% of Hispanic residents have their children attend neighborhood public schools, according to the research.

“This racial difference in school choice is likely attributable to longstanding racial inequalities in access to high-quality public education,” the report states.

“As a result, black parents who live in predominantly black neighborhoods and want their children to attend a high quality school must spend more time and energy than other parents searching outside of their neighborhood for adequate schooling options,” the researchers wrote.

Such disparities have been magnified by the reopening process currently facing elementary school campuses across the county. Health officials announced Tuesday the county has lowered its case rates enough to meet the state’s threshold for resuming in-person classes for grades K-6.

The process for going back to campus, and how soon, lies in the hands of individual school systems.

The huge L.A. Unified School District, which encompasses many of the campuses in some of the poorest, more urban areas of the county, has moved slower to reopen than districts in more suburban neighborhoods in areas such as the San Fernando Valley.

The Los Angeles Times reports school districts in more affluent communities have been quicker to move toward reopening while those in lower income areas, serving predominantly Black and Latino communities, have grappled with issues like the vaccination of teachers as they move slower.

Much of that has to do with the fact that many of these less affluent, nonwhite communities continue to deal with much higher rates of coronavirus cases and deaths.

Ferrer last month called the death rate among Latinos “frankly horrifying” — it has been three times as high as the rate among white residents in recent weeks. Mortality rates among Black residents are second-highest, followed by Asian and then white residents.

Neighborhoods with the highest rates of poverty also continue to see death rates that are up to more than three times as high as the county’s most wealthy areas.

The USC report also details disparities in access to health care and food. One in three L.A. County residents did not get medical care they needed last year because costs were too high.

One bit of good news in the report is that levels of food insecurity fell through 2020, meaning more residents are on average getting access to food compared to the first few months of the pandemic. Researchers write that may have been, in part, the result of relief from the federal CARES Act.

Still, about 870,000 adults in L.A. County continue to suffer from food insecurity, the report states.

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