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Year in Review: 20 Stories of 2020

In a year like no other, these stories reflected the many issues we grappled with as a country in 2020: policing reform, a lack of affordable health care, online higher education and student debt, the worsening opioid epidemic, economic issues, and of course, COVID-19.

Criminal Justice

COVID-19 and Crime: How Responses to the Pandemic Affected Homicide Rates

A major headline in 2020 was violence in our cities. Research commissioned by Arnold Ventures shows that American homicide rates declined dramatically in April and May, presumably as a result of coronavirus closures and stay-in-place orders. But that same research predicted an increase in homicide rates as the country opened back up. In this Q&A, we spoke with the authors of the study, Thomas Abt and Richard Rosenfeld, on their findings.

Podcast: The Debate Over Money Bail Reform

States and localities across the country are waking up to the fact that money bail is a harmful system that incarcerates the poor because they cannot afford to buy their freedom and separates people from their families, jobs, and communities — before they’ve ever been convicted of a crime. Our Co-Founder Laura Arnold speaks with Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Alec Karakatsanis, Founder and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps, about the debate over bail reform and the balance between public safety and personal freedom in this Deep Dive with Laura Arnold” podcast episode.

Research & Results: Nine U.S. Localities Offer Human-Centered Approaches to Unsheltered Homelessness

Even before the pandemic, cities and regions across the country were seeing spikes in unsheltered homelessness, bringing attention — and politicization — to the issue. Barbara Poppe and Stephen Metraux, with support from Arnold Ventures, published a series of issue briefs and documents based on their study of nine sites across the country that offer a roadmap of best practices for moving people into permanent housing with supportive services. 

A Moment Has Found Us’: The Arnold Ventures Approach to Police Reform and Rethinking Public Safety

The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked a national movement in 2020 to reform law enforcement. Among the problems the movement highlighted is America’s over-reliance on police to handle all manner of civil disturbances and minor lawbreaking. This piece explains why research on alternatives to arrest should be guiding public policy.

I Can Kill You In Here and No One Would Know It’

In 2020 Arnold Ventures supported the launch of a landmark study to shed light on the brutality and violence behind prison walls — what causes it and how to stop it. This story is told through the lens of Johnny Perez, who spent 13 years in prison environments where violence is the language of the land, and you need to learn to speak it quick.” Nancy Rodriguez of the University of California Irvine is leading a three-year, seven-state study on prison violence that will not only look at anecdotal evidence but, for the first time in U.S. history, dig into the data by setting up a uniform system of documenting the sources of violence, how often it occurs, and the effects it has.

Health Care

Debunking Myths in the Surprise Billing Debate

Surprise medical billing was a serious problem for American families long before COVID-19 struck, but the pandemic only heightened the urgency for protections against this predatory practice. Opponents to reform have perpetuated a number of falsehoods about surprise billing and the solutions that would end it. In this piece, we examine those myths and fact-check the debate.

    Also worth watching:

    Pharma’s Bad Behaviors Exposed in Congressional Testimony

    When the House Committee on Oversight and Reform released a series of bombshell reports exposing how drug companies systematically gamed the system to boost revenue and extract bigger executive bonuses at the financial peril of patients, we were there with real-time analysis. Over two days, we tuned in to the testimony and read the reports — our takeaways: price hikes are intentional, innovation isn’t a driver of high prices, rebates are a red herring, and anticompetitive tactics are just part of the business strategy. 

    Texas Hospitals Sue Patients Over Medical Debt

    In an aggressive attempt to collect medical debt, hospitals across Texas filed more than 1,000 lawsuits in the span of two years, with almost half of the legal action targeting low-income families, according to a report released by Arnold Ventures grantee. This practice continued even in the middle of a pandemic, underscoring the unaffordability of the U.S. health care system that has resulted in part due to exorbitant and unjustified hospital costs.

    Trump Executive Orders, Explained

    After making drug pricing reform a central talking point, President Trump’s administration issued a series of executive orders aimed at lowering drug prices — but our drug pricing experts reviewed them and found some concerns. They failed to address one of the key culprits behind high costs — manufacturer prices — and some orders would actually have the opposite effect of what they intended and cause consumers to pay more for drugs, not less. Read through our analyses of each.

    COVID-19 Continues to Take Aim at an Already Vulnerable Population

    Among those hardest hit by the pandemic have been dual-eligible beneficiaries, a group of individuals who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid. The pandemic has illustrated the importance and the urgency of fixing broken coverage incentives for dual-eligible individuals.

    Higher Education

    Quality of Online Higher Education Draws Concern During the Pandemic

    As COVID-19 disrupted higher education, and colleges and universities were forced to move courses online, it quickly became clear that many institutions were unprepared to deliver high-quality virtual instruction. Meanwhile, the pandemic primed predatory for-profit institutions to take advantage, enticing new students who take on massive debt and receive a subpar online education. We talked to a number of higher education experts about solutions. 

    The Right Way to Cancel Student Debt

    Student loan debt has taken on more urgency now more than ever with the COVID-induced economic downturn. President-elect Joe Biden voiced support for legislation proposed by House Democrats that would forgive $10,000 in student loan debt to all borrowers as part of a COVID-19 relief bill. Many progressives celebrated this announcement. Others wished to go further still, advocating for a policy of universal student debt cancellation. While this looks like a way to help students struggling, the debate is complex and has higher education experts counseling to focus on student debt relief for those who need it the most right now. In truth, the approach would send billions of dollars to aid mostly upper-income Americans, who hold a disproportionate amount of the country’s student loan debt and are in a drastically different financial situation than hard-pressed low-income borrowers, who may be experiencing the economic pressure of this COVID economy.

    In Pursuit of the American Dream: Latino Students Face Troubling Barriers to College Success

    Students of color are overrepresented at predatory for-profit colleges — with Latino and Black students accounting for roughly half their populations. While Latino students account for one-fifth of undergraduates in the United States, with an enrollment rate outpacing their white and Black peers, many are struggling to finish degrees. We break down why the disproportionate share of Latinos in for-profit colleges may help explain some of this gap.

    Misery Factories’: At For-Profit Colleges, a Web of Predatory Behavior

    Stephanie Porreca graduated from the photography program at the Illinois Institute of Art in July 2018 eager to start her career. Then she learned the school had lost its accreditation months earlier. Porreca became one of many students left with a worthless degree and a mountain of debt. For-profit colleges like the Illinois Institute of Art are part of a web of players and practices that victimize students, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center. And those hardest-hit by these manipulations are from low-income and historically marginalized backgrounds who are trying to improve their lives.

    Higher Education Watchdogs Urge Oversight as Schools Push Programs Online

    For higher education watchdogs, the proposed merger between Ashford and the University of Arizona raised red flags. It is perhaps the most egregious example of an arrangement that has become increasingly common in higher education in the last decade. Even as public opinion has turned against predatory for-profit schools, there is little public awareness that reputable public institutions often outsource their remote learning to private corporations. Because these institutions typically share tuition revenue, it can lead to predatory marketing and recruiting practices, not to mention an overall lack of transparency with students.

    The Opioid Crisis, Public Finance, Contraceptive Care, and Evidence-Based Policy

    Dying Without Treatment: The Opioid Crisis in Communities of Color

    Amid the pandemic, America’s other public health crisis has raged on, and communities of color have been especially hard hit. Even as the white overdose death rate has decreased in recent years, the rate among Black, Latino, and indigenous communities has skyrocketed. A lack of access to treatment, the criminalization of drug use, and stigma have contributed to the gaps in care. We explain how advocates are urgently trying to increase access to treatments that work.

    Auto IRAs Put Retirement Savings on Autopilot, Offering Hope for Low-Income Workers

    A roller derby team with eight paid employees is not the type of business that has financial firms banging down the door. That’s where auto-IRAs come in, an innovation that is helping lower-income workers save for retirement. While large companies offer workers retirement plans, small ones often don’t. OregonSaves and similar programs in California and Illinois are designed to fill that gap, with legislation already enacted to create plans in three additional states. These programs will go a long way toward offering retirement savings vehicles to workers, such as those working at fast food outlets or small shops, who often lack access to employer-sponsored plans.

    Pharmacists Provide Expanded Access to Safe, Essential Birth Control

    Far too many women in this country lack access to high-quality reproductive care, a problem that disproportionately affects communities of color and those without insurance. One possible solution? Pharmacist-prescribed contraception. We broke down the results of a study that found that birth control prescribed by a pharmacist is just as safe, and more accessible, than clinician-prescribed birth control. Moreover, pharmacists are able to reach younger, less educated and uninsured patients.

    Property Taxes Rob From the Poor, Give Breaks to the Rich

    When it comes to property taxes, a reverse Robin Hood” situation is unfolding in communities across the U.S. Under regressive assessment, people who own homes valued in the bottom 10 percent pay a higher share of taxes than those in the top 10 percent. And that imbalance has racial implications, with one study finding that Black and Latino homeowners paying up to 13 percent more in property taxes than whites. People wouldn’t tolerate this if it were the income tax,” said Christopher R. Berry, Academic Director for the Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago. But because the property tax is so opaque to people, it seems to have gone unnoticed for a very long time.”

    Unique Job-Training Program Transforms Lives by Turning Low-Wage Earners into Well-Paid Tech Workers

    Some good news out of 2020: evidence that the Per Scholas job-training program, designed to vault low-income workers into the middle class, has a demonstrated track record of making a difference. Findings of a randomized controlled trial found that Per Scholas graduates dramatically out-earn their peers, and the effect is long-lasting. Roughly, six years after completing the program, the average graduate earns 20% more than workers in a control group, the research found. There are 6,500 proof points that this is working,” beams Abe Mendez, who runs the Per Scholas New York facility.