Coronavirus Exposes How Bad America’s Homework Gap Really Is

Brooke Young was driving by the library she manages in Salt Lake City when she saw two teens huddled by the staff door trying to access the building’s free Wi-Fi on their phones. The county, like several others across the U.S., had shut down all public facilities, including libraries, to curb the spread of coronavirus. And Utah Governor Gary Herbet had announced a “soft closure” of all K-12 public schools, with the option for districts to resume class online.

But getting online for class will be hard for kids in Young’s Glendale neighborhood, where residents are largely immigrant, of lower income, or part of the refugee community. “We’re in a historically underserved community, and it has the lowest rate of internet-at-home in the city,” she says. Many students would typically do their homework at the library. With libraries closed, both the Wi-Fi inside and the hotspot devices they lend out are no longer available.

Tens of millions of public schools students in the U.S. are out of class this week due to the Covid-19 outbreak, according to Education Week. At least 40 states enacted statewide closures, and individual school districts in the remaining states have also announced shutdowns. Most schools are saying they will be closed for at least two weeks; Kansas became the first state to order its schools not to reopen for the remainder of the academic year.

For many of the more than 100,000 schools closed, teachers are moving their classes online. But not all students can take advantage because of the lack of technology at home, a disparity known as the homework gap. Some 15% of households with school-age children don’t have internet at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 census data. And in a separate 2018 survey of 13- to 17-year-olds, 1 in 5 teens told Pew researchers that they often or sometimes can’t complete assignments because they don’t have reliable access to the internet or a computer. Both reports found that affected students are more likely to be from low-income and minority families.

Without a sound contingency plan to get all students connected, already-disadvantaged youth will fall even further behind over the next several weeks, says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “The inequities in all our education systems are going to be even worse,” she says. “The kids whose families do have internet connection are going to have at least some learning continuing during this period, and the kids who don’t won’t.”

It’s not just about taking online classes: With libraries and recreation centers closed, and seating restricted at cafes and restaurants that offer free Wi-Fi, students miss out on a host of online resources that can at least partially help make up for missed school days.

The disparity speaks to the larger digital divide in the U.S., the impact of which is now exacerbated by waves of business and public-space closures, and by officials’ urges for residents to stay home. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 19 million Americans lack fixed broadband access simply because their neighborhoods don’t have the physical infrastructure to connect, though one report argues that because of faulty metrics, the true number may be more than double the official figure.

And 2017 data from the Department of Commerce shows that some 22 million households don’t have internet because they can’t afford it or don’t need it. Of those, 6 million households say it’s too expensive, and a quarter of those have school-age children at home.

CityLab mapped this lack of internet access by school district, based on 2015 census data:

(Marie Patino)

One of the least-connected school districts on this map is the rural Red Mesa Unified District in Arizona, where the majority of students are Native American. More than 80% — nearly 1,700 households — don’t have internet access, according to 2015 census data. But it’s not just a problem for rural communities: In Laredo Independent School District in the city of Laredo, Texas, nearly 14,000 households, or 53%, don’t have internet access.

In fact, NDIA estimates that some 15 million Americans without internet access live in urban and suburban communities, making up the majority of the digitally disconnected. And whereas rural communities lack adequate physical infrastructure to access the internet, the challenge among poor urban families is more often broadband adoption.

Some families rely only on their smartphones and data plans. “It’s not that the mobile phone is superior; it’s that you have to choose,” Siefer says. “And if your budget is already having a hard time with any service plans, you’re going to choose the one that can go with you.” The 2018 Pew survey found that 1 in 4 teens in households making less than $30,000 don’t have a computer at home. But even one computer may not be enough to be shared among parents and their kids.

Filling digital gaps

With shutdowns expected to drag on for weeks, if not months, broadband and telecommunication companies have significantly expanded access to their services as part of the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Both Charter and Comcast are opening up their Wi-Fi hotspots for public use and offering free plans to new customers in low-income households or who live with students. “Kudos to the broadband providers stepping up to help during this time,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement, though she urged the agency to go further and make hotspot loans available to all students.

Education officials and teachers, meanwhile, are scrambling. Philadelphia announced Wednesday that its school district won’t offer remote learning, with superintendent William R. Hite Jr. specifically citing inequity as the main reason. The majority of the district’s 200,000 public school students come from low-income families. “If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” he said at a news conference.

Some districts are better prepared than others to offer distance learning. In Kansas City, Kansas, schools will begin handing out devices acquired from their ongoing partnership with Sprint through its 1 Million Project. “We’re going to doing some bookkeeping, making sure that they’re all charged and ready for pickup,” says superintendent Charles Foust. Families who need internet can also pick up hotspot devices and get free service through the internet provider Spectrum.

In South Bend, Indiana, officials are turning 20 unused school buses into traveling hotspots and will send them to more than 30 different sites every day except Sunday. Students can access the Wi-Fi within 300 feet of one — bus drivers will stop near parks and other open spaces — using the Chromebooks schools handed out earlier in the year.

Teachers in other cities have sent kids home with packets and workbooks while officials try to procure the necessary devices. In New York City, home to the nation’s largest public school system, 300,000 students lack electronic devices at home. The education department is hoping to purchase and deliver at least 25,000 iPads through a partnership with Apple, while also training its 80,000 teachers on how to make virtual lesson plans.

Some districts are still trying to figure out who needs help. The nonprofit Connect For Good provides discounted and sometimes-free refurbished devices to low-income families in Kansas City, Missouri. CEO Tom Esselman says they need to prioritize families with children, but first, they have to figure out who they are.

“Not just cities, but also individual school districts and administrators have not taken seriously the issue of how many families are really truly affected by the lack of access,” he says.

Currently the Kansas City chapter of NDIA has set up a form on its website asking people to describe what exactly they need. The group Leanlab Education has also sent out a survey tool for schools to start collecting data on things like the number of children, the level of internet access, and the number of devices each family has. The first report with aggregated data is set to come out Monday and will help coalition members like Esselman better coordinate their efforts.

Esselman is frustrated that it took a pandemic to expose how critical digital inclusion is when advocates like him have been trying to raise awareness for at least the last five years.

“We’ve said from day one that Wi-Fi connectivity should be viewed the same as electricity and running water, but because of the economic and commercial implications, we felt like we were years away from that,” he says. “But, oh boy, this crisis is making it appear now why we might get there sooner than later.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the location of the 20 free Wi-Fi buses. It is South Bend, Indiana.

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Parades and Pandemics Are a Really Bad Combination

Medical historian Howard Markel remembers attending New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade back in 2000. As marching bands, dancers, and floats came down Fifth Avenue, sidewalks on either side were jam-packed with spectators. “There was also a great deal of drinking going on that begins hours before the parade,” he says. “And drunk people don’t make good decisions.” He left soon thereafter.

The health risks posed by the annual event, which typically draws some 2 million visitors and 150,000 marchers to Manhattan, became the focus of New York City’s coronavirus outbreak response this week, with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio insisting until Wedenesday that the iconic parade would go on, even as scores of other cities — including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and even Dublin — canceled their St. Patrick’s Day observances. Finally, shortly before midnight on Wednesday, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that, for the first time in more than 250 years, the parade would be postponed.

Confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have surpassed 1,300 in the U.S. as of March 12, but with delays in testing, actual figures are likely far larger. Health experts are stepping up their message urging strict social-distancing measures: quarantines for people who may have been exposed to the virus, closing schools, promoting telework, and banning or discouraging public gatherings.

New York’s insistence that its St. Patrick’s Day festivities would proceed stood out as an increasingly awkward exception to this lockdown approach, thanks not only to its size (it’s the largest St. Pat’s parade in the world) but its alcohol-fueled rowdiness. As in other places that host these citywide frat parties, the event is something of an epidemiologist’s nightmare: Packed sidewalks along the route mean it’s not uncommon for families admiring leprechaun-themed floats to stand inches away from attendees puking up the contents of their morning pub crawl.

(Since New York’s bars are still open, those pub crawls will continue this weekend, according to PubCrawl.com, which organizes bar-hopping excursions in several U.S. cities.)

A pop-up on the event page of PubCrawls.com says that their St. Patrick’s Day events will continue as planned. (Screenshot/PubCrawls.com)

Even without the booze, though, parades are especially concerning to health experts, as the coronavirus appears to spread easily when groups are in close quarters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people maintain “social distance” (described as being at least six feet away from another person). The size and scope of the gathering matter little to Markel, who teaches the history of medicine at the University of Michigan. “Big parades, small parades, organized parades, disorganized parades — being in a crowd right now, particularly if you are in a high-risk group, is just not advisable,” he says. What matters more is “who is in the mix, and who you are standing next to.”

A Naval Aircraft Factory float passes by crowds during the Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia in 1918, which played a role in exacerbating that city’s influenza outbreak. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph)

The lethality of combining of parades and pandemics was made tragically evident a hundred years ago. On September 28, 1918, as World War I was coming to an end, some 200,000 people flooded the streets of Philadelphia for a patriotic parade intended to raise $259 million in government bonds to help fund America’s war effort. But the U.S. had just experienced the first wave of a deadly influenza outbreak that had been sweeping the globe, and was at the beginning of a second wave.

Some 600 sailors in Philadelphia were infected just days earlier, likely having contracted the disease from returning troops. In the 24 hours leading up to the parade, 118 new cases were detected, according to a local newspaper report that didn’t run until later that afternoon, according to the Philly Voice.

Anxiety over what became known as the Spanish flu had yet to hit the public, and the city — ignoring warnings from physicians — went ahead with the parade. A week later, 2,600 were dead from the flu, and the number of cases rose to 4,500 the week after. Officials later closed schools, churches, theaters, and other public gathering places, but much of the damage had already been done.

More than 12,000 city residents would die in the next weeks, though Markel says the deaths can’t be entirely pinned on the parade itself. Philadelphia, like several other cities at the time, took several missteps, including trying to prevent panic early in the epidemic by downplaying its threat and assuring the public that the flu wouldn’t spread beyond military camps. When the virus rapidly spread, the city was unprepared. There weren’t enough beds among the city’s 31 hospitals, medical staff were overworked and catching the flu themselves, and it wasn’t until October 2 that the mayor committed $100,000 in emergency funding.

Other cities managed to limit mortality by taking more proactive social-distancing measures: In St. Louis, for example, city leaders closed schools, churches and theaters and banned gatherings of more than 20 people. “St. Louis did everything early and layered more than one intervention option, and for a long time,” Markel says. “And they had a wonderful health commissioner, Max Starkloff, who knew how to deal with the people, with the mayor, with the newspaper, and the school boards. It was that rare leadership that’s really important.”

That leadership paid off, as St. Louis experienced one of the lowest mortality rates among large U.S. cities. “Of the 31,500 who got sick in St. Louis,” KMOV4 reports, “only 1,703 died.”

While the coronavirus outbreak differs from the 1918 flu pandemic in several ways — from the viruses themselves to the advancement of medical technology — the threat posed by public gatherings remains. Witness the two-day biotech leadership conference that became the epicenter of a Covid-19 outbreak in Boston, responsible for at least 70 of 92 infections in Massachusetts as of Tuesday and many more in other states. “The virus raced through this two-day conference at a frightening speed that state health officials and company executives were unable to match,” the Boston Globe writes.

That’s why Markel and other health experts so emphasize the significance of implementing social-distancing measures early to stem community spread and “flatten the curve,” or reduce and delay peak outbreak through control measures so as to not overwhelm hospitals.

So far, the ever-louder call to cancel everything has halted everything from festivals like South by Southwest and Coachella to Seattle’s public schools to the NBA season. In Washington state, Governor Jay Inslee also took extra measures to ban all large public gatherings in its largest metropolitan area, while King County officials are going even further and prohibiting events smaller than 250 people that don’t meet public health requirements like the CDC’s six-foot rule. Many more marquee public events are coming up as spring approaches in the U.S., like Washington, D.C.’s famous Cherry Blossom Parade. Markel says that while they don’t all have to be called off right now, city officials should prepare to heed the lessons of past outbreaks.

“It’s not an issue about preventing the spread — it never was,” he says. “It’s an issue of minimizing the number of patients. So why would do anything to increase your chance of a case?”

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Is Vienna Really All That Livable? Depends on Where You Look.

Last year, Vienna took first place in The Economist’s Global Liveability Index. This was familiar turf for the Austrian capital, which has been trading first and second place on the annual ranking with Melbourne, Australia, since 2015.

But according to a report from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), Vienna’s dominant position on the index may be flawed, because the metrics used by the Economist Intelligence Unit to rank urban livability fail to sufficiently account for many environmental factors. It’s not that Vienna’s conditions are poor by international standards. What the report suggests is that city rankings in general might be falling short because they take a too-narrow view of what “livability” means.

“We already knew that the index didn’t really take environmental factors into account, such as air pollution, noise levels, green spaces.” ISGlobal report co-author Sasha Khomenko told CityLab by telephone. “We wanted to do a comparison and see if there was a mismatch between livability and environmental health.”

The tendency of rankings to provide incomplete accounts of a city’s livability is a theme that CityLab has previously explored: When rankings focus closely on the needs of a rarified group as representing those of the whole, they can neglect the experience of other social segments, which might produce starkly different results. In Vienna’s case, the ISGlobal researchers found that even this famously salubrious city harbors a “mortality burden that is quite considerable when you consider that Vienna is ranked as the most livable city.”

The EIU’s rankings don’t ignore the environment entirely. The Global Livability Index does, for example, look at humidity and temperatures and how uncomfortable the climate is to travelers, along with the availability of housing, healthcare, public transit and sporting amenities. But other important factors are left out, the report points out. The index doesn’t measure the urban heat island effect, for example, which can vary dramatically within a city (and tends to disproportionately affect lower-income residents). Similarly, the ranking doesn’t measure access to green space, noise pollution, and how physically active its residents are — all of which are strongly influenced by planning decisions. Furthermore, creating a single city-wide ranking suggests there’s an overall harmony across the entire municipality, masking differences between richer and poorer areas, or the city core and its suburbs.

To rectify this, the ISGlobal report looked at the extent to which Vienna deviated from international recommendations on physical activity, pollution, noise, green space and heat. It found that failure to meet these recommendations was responsible for 8% of premature deaths in the city, shortening adult Vienna residents’ life expectancy by an average of 199 days. Meanwhile, residents of the city center lived under far more polluted conditions than most on the periphery.

By international standards, these figures are hardly disastrous: In Barcelona, for example, ISGlobal’s report notes that the same cluster of factors shortens life expectancy by an average of 300 days. (By comparison, the failure to meet WHO guidelines on air pollution alone shortens life expectancy in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh by a whopping 8.6 years.) They do nonetheless serve as a corrective to an overly rosy picture.

The impression gained from the report’s new metrics isn’t entirely negative, however. In mapping pollution across the city, researchers found that wealthier citizens tended to enjoy healthier environmental conditions overall — but this link was not automatic. As the map below details, Vienna’s greatest concentration of environmental burdens is in the city core, an area in which, in keeping with broader European urban patterns, both richer and poorer residents live close to each other under similar environmental conditions (at least outside their homes). Meanwhile, some outlying areas house residents with low socioeconomic status but have good environmental standards — suggesting that in Vienna, wealth does not automatically determine how healthy the environment you live in is.

Pollution burdens in Vienna are concentrated near the city’s center. (ISGlobal)

Including factors like access to green space and pollution might be enough to dethrone Vienna from its perch atop global rankings, since Scandinavian cities such as Oslo can boast cleaner air and more evenly distributed parks. But there’s something broader amiss than a mere blip in the league table, suggest the report’s authors.

“The main issue with the Global Livability Index is that it’s not developed for the citizens of the city,” Khomenko said. “It’s mainly built for ex-pats who are moving to cities on the index, so they can be given more wages if they go to worse places to live.”

This opinion isn’t entirely disputed by the Economist Intelligence Unit. “There is some truth in the idea that the Global Livability Index was set up mainly with the idea of companies and individuals looking to relocate in mind,” says EIU analyst Nicholas Fitzroy. “But since then, interest in it has greatly expanded, and it gets a lot of broader international attention. It’s something people genuinely care about. And I’d say that information provided for people who are relocating still has a lot of relevance for people who have been living in a city long term. There isn’t a huge difference there.” Adding more metrics for local environmental factors isn’t in the immediate future, but “it’s something we are always looking at at,” he said.

While there may be an appetite for urban rankings that are primarily tools for multinational companies or city-shopping nomads, the ISGlobal report makes a case for a more citizen-focused livability index, one that doesn’t end up masking the gulf between the conditions experienced by various classes in different parts of the same city. Following the model currently being adopted by Paris, it could also factor in proximity to amenities like schools, medical offices, and food stores. Tweaking the way livability is measured wouldn’t necessarily knock prosperous cities with good infrastructure like Vienna from the upper reaches of city rankings — but it might prove a more accurate register of what living there is really like.

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Ride-Hailing Isn’t Really Green

Uber and Lyft have consumed a vast amount of attention since they arrived a decade ago. But in many ways, we’re just beginning to understand what ride-hailing is doing. A growing cache of research by academics and policymakers points to a host of negative impacts associated with the explosive popularity of on-demand rides, including increased traffic congestion, declines in public transit ridership and upticks in traffic fatalities.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists evaluates another, less-examined ramification of the ride-hailing sector: its environmental toll. The study estimates that the average U.S. ride-hailing trip results in 69% more pollution than the transportation choices it displaces, based on federal vehicle efficiency statistics, data collected by state and local transportation regulators and previous survey-based academic research. The effects are likely even worse in downtown areas, where riders are more likely to choose on-demand rides in lieu of cleaner modes of mobility.

“Not every ride-hailing trip is displacing what would have been a car trip,” said Don Anair, the deputy director and research director of the UCS Clean Transportation Program and the lead author of the paper.

Anair and his colleagues first compare the pollution associated with the average, non-pooled ride-hailing trip to the pollution from the same trip in an average passenger vehicle, and finds that the on-demand rides generate 47% more carbon emissions. Although ride-hailing vehicles tend to be more gasoline-efficient than America’s fleet of individually owned cars — for-hire drivers often buy these cars for the express purpose of towing people around — Anair and his colleagues found that the fuel savings was not enough to make up for the many miles that ride-hail drivers log without anyone in the back seat (“deadheading,” in taxi-driver talk). As many as 40 percent of all miles driven by Uber and Lyft across six major U.S. cities were without passengers, according to a joint study released by the companies last summer, reported on first by CityLab.

Next, UCS researchers estimated how ride-hailing compare to the transportation options riders would have otherwise chosen. Assuming on-demand trips are pooled an average of 15 percent of the time, Uber and Lyft rides deadhead so much and so often displace lower-emitting options such as public transit, walking, and biking that they turn out to be 69 percent more polluting, the study estimates. The researchers uses data from California, where air-quality regulators have crunched numbers directly from ride-hailing companies.  

The findings run counter to the eco-friendly messaging that the companies have promoted over the years. Lyft pledged to go carbon-neutral in 2018 via an offset investment program, and both companies have touted their carpooling options and their value as “first and last mile” connections to transit. But shared-ride services are still far less popular than solo passenger rides—at least based on data from California and New York City regulators—and ride-hailing’s complementary relationship to transit has so far proven limited.

Campbell Matthews, a spokesperson for Lyft, called the new study “misleading,” because ride-hailing makes up only a small portion of overall emissions from the transportation sector. The report also does not account for the environmental benefits associated with people who have sold their cars or foregone new vehicle purchases because of ride-hailing’s availability, she said. “Lyft encourages the use of shared rides, was the first rideshare company to put public transit information into our app, and last year, made one of the largest single deployments of electric vehicles in the nation,” said Matthews. “We are eager to continue this work in partnership with cities, to advance shared, sustainable transportation.”

Xavier Van Chau, an Uber spokesperson, echoed that sentiment. “We want Uber to be a part of the solution to address climate change by working with cities to help create a low-carbon transportation future,” he said. “To unlock the opportunities we have to reduce emissions, we will continue to invest in products and advocate for policies that reduce car ownership, promote more pooled trips and support greater adoption of bikes, scooters, green vehicles and the use of public transit.”

The report also lists a number of ways that companies, rides, and regulators can ease the climate impacts of ride-hailing, including expanding the deployment of plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles, collecting trip fees in congested downtown areas and supporting carpooling and public transit. It notes that Uber and Lyft have boosted mobility in neighborhoods previously underserved by transit and for riders with disabilities.

“Policies that promote pooling, vehicle electrification and better connections to public transit can facilitate a reduced environmental impact from TNCs, while building on their mobility and accessibility benefits,” said Susan Shaheen, the co-director of the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center, which was not involved in the report.

Among the recommendations from UCS researchers: encouraging ride-hailing companies to share more data with government regulators. The industry’s reluctance to make trip data available has limited the ability of policymakers and academics to understand and rein in the impacts of the new mode, including pollution.

“It’s helpful both for consumers and policymakers to understand  what the climate emissions are and to understand what the solutions might be,” said Anair. “There are opportunities for ride-hailing to be part of a low-carbon transportation future, with some concerted effort among ride-railing companies, policymakers, and consumers alike.”

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What’s Really Behind the Native American Health Gap?

Growing up as a member of the Ojibwe tribe, Melissa Walls knew that that diabetes ran in her maternal family. “I’ve lost two very close family members, my great grandfather and an uncle, to complications related to type 2 diabetes,” she says. But it wasn’t until she began studying American Indian health in graduate school, at the suggestion of another uncle who served as a liaison between academics and local tribal communities, that she understood that her family’s plight was part of a much larger problem.

American Indian adults are more than twice as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Native American youth experience the highest and fastest-growing rate of the disease of any racial or ethnic group. But those statistics only scratch the surface of the kinds of health disparities that indigenous people face.

Nationally, the average life expectancy for a Native American person born today is 73 years—5.5 years below that for all other races. Members of this community, adolescents in particular, also experience much higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide and suicidal behaviors. In fact, while the national suicide rate has gone up 33 percent since 1999, the rates for Native American women and men have jumped by an alarming 139 percent and 71 precent, respectively, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You could take almost any health outcome and find health inequity for tribes,” Walls says. “I mean, take your pick.”

The health statistics reflect a dire economic reality—1 in 4 Native Americans live in poverty, the highest rate compared to all other races—and the massive gap in medical resources available to this population. The Indian Health Service, which runs clinics and hospitals for Native Americans, spent $3,332 per person in 2017, compared to $9,207 spent on each person in the national health care system, according to a 2018 report on funding shortfalls by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Walls knows from experience: Like the majority of American Indians, she grew up outside a reservation. Her family lived in International Falls, Minnesota, a town of about 6,000 people—mostly white—near the Canadian border. But to access health services, her family had to go to the nearest reservation. “We drove an hour literally to go to the doctor, to go to the dentist, to get our eyes checked,” she says. “But when you grow up in that context, you don’t label it as an inequity or disparity. It’s just sort of your reality.”

More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas, not reservations. That reflects 1950s-era federal policy designed to encourage American Indians living on reservations to urbanize, in the name of speeding “assimilation” (and freeing up tribal lands for federal exploitation). The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Urban Relocation Program of 1952 and the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956 offered promises of job training and housing for the new arrivals; the hope was that moving to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis would allow more Native Americans to participate in the postwar economic boom. But in practice the relocation policy was “essentially a one-way bus ticket from rural to urban poverty,” as former Indian Affairs Commissioner Philleo Nash admitted in the 1960s.

Walls is now the head of the new Great Lakes hub of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for American Indian Health in Duluth, Minnesota, the city of 86,000 located three hours south of where she grew up. Her team currently works with 11 different tribal communities to better understand the health inequities that Native Americans experience, and try to correct them. The hub is just a 15-minute drive from the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe tribe, with whom Walls has been working closely on diabetes prevention. Among her research interests: how stress impacts can affect type 2 diabetes, and how culture and community can help to buffer the negative effects of modern lifestyles among Native Americans.

CityLab recently caught up with Walls to talk about possible solutions to health inequities among American Indians, and why the damage that government policies inflicted on this population has been so far-reaching. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Can you explain how government policy induced historical trauma in the indigenous population?

The historical trauma encompasses a lot of government actions like setting up reservations and marching people across the country. Then in the the 1950s and ’60s, the government started a relocation program to get [Native Americans] into urban areas, and give them job training programs. It failed miserably, like most of these things did, in part because the job training was woefully inadequate, and often [the jobs available] were temp work or summer employment, if anything.

People were taken out of their family support systems or cultural safety nets, thrown into these urban environments, and expected to survive. Certainly in some cities, native people have worked to try build those kinds of networks. But you are very much a minority in the urban context. I think the idea of not having access to not just your friends and your family, which we all need, but those particular aspects of cultural teachings of ceremony that creates a sense of spirituality, purpose, and belonging would be scary to anybody.

[The relocation policy] was rooted in this flawed idea that all people need to look and act like European Americans, and live the way they do. It’s shocking, if you go into some of these government records, just how blatantly plain the language is about how the goal was really to exterminate or assimilate.

That has impact on communities, and we see it play out in terms of mental health, substance abuse, suicide, and other chronic diseases.

You’ve been largely looking at diabetes—how does historical trauma fit into that story?

In the case of diabetes, one really tangible thing is what we call nutrition transition. In the Midwestern U.S., Ojibwe people once had a thing called a seasonal round, where with each season came new sources of food. In the springtime, you tap trees to get maple syrup. In the fall, you gather wild rice off the lake and you hunt deer. Every season had ways of getting [food] that burned a lot of calories.

Moving away from these ways of eating and getting your food, and suddenly relying on government-sponsored commodity programs [that included] flour, sugar, lard, butter, we start to see rates of obesity kind of going off the charts. And we continue to suffer the consequences.

And this trauma has affected multiple generations?

Some of the research we’ve done is really trying to link up negative health outcomes with specific policies. We’ve published a paper that demonstrates how families who’ve gone through those relocation programs have the worst health outcomes that we can track across three generations.

It’s based on survey data from members of eight tribal communities. We were able to track parents’ reports of their parents going through relocation. If they did, we saw a significant pathway where those [first-generation] parents might have had substance abuse issues, which led to substance abuse and depression in the [second-generation] parents. That led to them being not very good parents of their own kids—the third generation—who at the time were in adolescence. They had bad outcomes like delinquency and depression.

The article was published in 2012, but we continue to collect new data every year from that same cohort, so it’s an ongoing study.

Your research is mostly on communities that live within reservations, but what can you tell us about the current urban Native American population so far?

In our cohort study, the kids who grew up on the reservation, a good chunk of them now have moved on to cities, which is another thing that happens. People tend to migrate between cities and reservations. With our new data that’s being collected from that cohort, we’re going to be able to examine urban-rural differences.

What I do know is that the health issues that hit tribal people on reservations, some reports say they’re actually compounded and worse for people in the cities, for reasons like the lack of access to cultural protective factors and social networks. People are more likely to experience discrimination when they’re in an urban area. And there’s tons of research talking about how that hurts health.

What’s a common misconception about the indigenous community that you hope to dispel?

One of the big stories I’ve helped to push forward is that yes, we have these health inequities, but people on reservations and in urban areas also have really amazing positive stories. Like with positive mental health, when we started measuring it, our communities were off the charts compared to non-native people.

We found this measure created by a sociologist called Corey Keyes [that] assesses emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being across three domains using 14 different indicators. These items assess basically how much you’re flourishing or languishing in those domains. And the outcome was that the percentage of people in our sample who [reported] flourishing was much higher than what we had seen in other studies with non-Native samples.

So you can have these [inequity] issues, but also have vibrant and cultural richness, family centric [communities] with communal, take-care-of-one-another thinking.

And that has implications for all humans: that being embedded in your community is good for you, that being tied culturally to other people is good for you. It’s not just a dismal doom-and-gloom kind of story.

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Berlin Wants to Freeze Rents for 5 Years. Can It Really Do That?

Berlin’s planned five-year rent freeze might be popular among locals, but the city may have trouble navigating a legal minefield to protect the law when it takes effect in January.

That much was confirmed Saturday when newspaper Berliner Morgenpost dropped a bombshell by publishing emails from Germany’s interior ministry to the Berlin head of Angela Merkel’s CDU party. In those emails, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer expressed his belief that the rent freeze is illegal, as it would “distort” national laws.

In a relatively inexpensive city whose housing sector is dominated by rental units— 80 percent of residents rent their homes—the plan has found broad support. The law, approved in October, caps rent increases at 1.3 percent per year (to account for inflation) for all homes built before 2013, while owners of newer homes, including those recently built and buildings planned for the future, are able to raise rents as they see fit.

The minister’s objections paint the issue as a turf war between national and regional powers. The rent freeze won’t fly, Seehofer says, because it would mean the State of Berlin overstepping its jurisdiction under Germany’s constitution. Federal legislators make Germany’s real estate laws on a national level, and a decision confined to only the State of Berlin could risk distorting that national legislation.

The rent freeze, Seehofer’s October 31 email says, would unfairly ban landlords from factoring rising maintenance costs into the rates they charge tenants. What’s more, while rents for new contracts have been galloping higher in the city, not every Berlin landlord has raised their rents to the maximum level. This group would now be prevented from raising rents even though their tenants are now paying substantially below-market rates.

These objections are a problem for the State of Berlin. They aren’t necessarily a nail in the law’s coffin, however, because the national government doesn’t itself decide the law’s legality—and as a body dominated by the right-wing CDU, it tends by default to look askance at policies forged by Berlin’s ruling center-left coalition. Furthermore, as CityLab previously reported, these issues were not entirely unforeseen. Any ruling would be up to the courts if (or, more likely, when) landlords legally challenge the law.

Seehofer’s emails are, nonetheless, a warning sign that courts might rule in landlords’ favor, and will certainly heat up a debate over the law, against which the backlash is particularly fierce. This month, a developer withdrew from a project to build 900 new apartments on the edge of the city, citing the rent freeze. These apartments would not have been subject to the freeze, but the developer claims that rent freezes at its other properties would reduce the amount of cash it had for further investments, and thus make the development unviable. Sections of the media have also gone on the attack. A representative of the center-right party FDP, writing in the business publication Handelsblatt, recently damned the law as an example of “German envy culture,” motivated more by a vindictive attitude toward wealth than a desire to improve market conditions. Others have accused the city of trying to “rebuild the wall.”

That view is not going unchallenged. As an article in left-leaning newspaper Tageszeitung points out, the abuses the law seeks to remedy are real enough. It cites as an example the Swedish landlord company Akelius, which has relied on the legal loophole of  “modernization” as a justification for hiking rents on its 14,000 Berlin apartments. These rent increases can happen even if the actual quality of the supposed modernizations is poor and does nothing to improve living conditions. Meanwhile, other sections of the business media are asking if, rather than being an example of Berlin radicalism, the city’s new laws might become a template for action across Germany.

The debate isn’t over, and it may just be heating up. For now, Berliners are left in a curious position. They can’t be certain that the rent freeze will genuinely make the city more livable. They also can’t be certain, at this point, that it will come into force at all.

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It’s a Funhouse for Selfies. Is It Really a Museum?

When the Museum of Illusions opened in Greenwich Village last fall, it drew lines down the block to get in. Visitors flocked to photogenic exhibits that make it look like you have lost your head or can walk on walls. Following in the footsteps of other viral-experience purveyors like the Museum of Ice Cream, Museum of Pizza, and Color Factory, the Museum of Illusions’ takeover of a prominent corner building seemed to assert that the age of the pop museum—or “museum”—is only beginning.

The Museum of Illusions’ New York outpost was the second location to open in a burgeoning international franchise. MOI lists 18 current locations around the globe, with another 14 in the works, including in Chicago, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Unlike many of its predecessors in the world of Instagram-bait exhibitions, the Museum of Illusions isn’t a temporary pop-up—its locations are intended as long-term fixtures. The stately downtown NYC location, a landmarked neo-classical former bank, underlines that ambition.

These immersive experiences are branded as exhibits, but that might be where the link to traditional museums ends. The companies are, after all, for-profit businesses that sell experiences that have been expressly created for social media postability. That’s quite a contrast from the conventional idea of a museum as an educational institution that’s driven by the public good. Traditionally speaking, museums have mission statements, standards, accountability, and other responsibilities (including generating enough income to survive).

Their viral brethren are here to sell a good time for a profit, though providing education can be a welcome side benefit. Renne Gjoni, the CEO of MOI’s New York City outpost, says he is gratified that educators value the exhibits so much that they keep bringing school groups back.

A visitor poses for a picture in the “Rotated Room” of a Museum of Illusions franchise in Pristina, Kosovo. (Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty)

Why, then, has it become trendy to make a funhouse for grownups and brand it with the M-word? For one thing, pastimes among the well-off have evolved and converged. For example, the “experiential retail and entertainment” complex Area 15, set to open in Las Vegas next year, advertises, “It’s retail, it’s entertainment, it’s art—redefined.” (See also the popular immersive experiences by Meow Wolf and TeamLab.) Then there’s the global popularity of museums as travel destinations, and their primacy in online searches. And there’s also the possibility that businesspeople aren’t too cautious with the word museum, as Museum of Ice Cream founder Maryellis Bunn told The Atlantic last year: “It’s not so damn serious. I like ice cream, so do you, that’s enough,” Bunn said.

As the Museum of Ice Cream’s business grows beyond pop-up installations, though, the company’s founders have signaled a shift in thinking about its use of museum. Speaking to Forbes in August about the company’s future—including opening permanent locations in New York and San Francisco this year—Bunn unveiled a new word: experium, a combination of experience and museum. She told Forbes:

For the last three years, we’ve been having conversations about what we create. Museum is not the right word and experience is not the right word, because an experience can be having a cup of tea, writing a letter or walking outside. So we need to properly define this word for ourselves and for the world.

There certainly has been some value in adopting the museum as a brand. Research shows that museums generally are among the most trusted institutions in America, earning higher marks among the public than local news, government agencies, and academic researchers, according to the American Alliance of Museums.

“The fact that many successful immersive experiences are identifying themselves as museums demonstrates they feel there is economic value in museums and in associating their work with more traditional organizations,” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums. “Traditional museums, in turn, can watch how these for-profit experiments operate and create new revenue sources.”

The looming question, then, is if appropriating the word museum threatens to diminish that hard-earned trust.

That’s the crux of the matter for Peter Kim, executive director of the nonprofit MOFAD, the Museum of Food and Drink. “I have no quarrel with the approach and goals of a place like the Museum of Ice Cream, or the Museum of Pizza, or the Museum of Illusions to create a space for fun, and a space for play,” Kim tells CityLab. “My only issue arises, and it’s a very serious one, when they use the word museum to describe what they’re doing. That’s where the entire problem lies.”

Kim has been working since 2011 toward the eventual establishment of a permanent museum with the professional level of quality and practice to eventually be accredited by AAM. Presently, the temporary “MOFAD Lab” is open in Brooklyn and exhibiting “Chow: Making the Chinese-American Restaurant,” whose webpage cites 10 scholars and experts who advised the exhibition.

The word museum invokes expectations, and if those are not met, “then you warp and change the meaning of the word,” Kim says. “It means education, it means community building, it means service, it means mission. And these places are pretty much devoid of that.”

“Space for fun is a laudable effort in many ways,” Kim says. “But the real hard stuff comes when you want to connect people in new ways, or teach new things.” In the moments when a museum isn’t all sparkles and photo ops, he says: “I worry that there will be a sense of disappointment from people who are no longer used to experiencing things in this way.”

Of course, it’s an eternal challenge to know what to expect of the public, or how much credit to give. You want to believe that people understand the University of the Streets does not grant MBAs, the Brandy Library is not about lending, and you can’t reach the Fountain Pen Hospital by calling 911.

Laura Lott, president and CEO of AAM, says she trusts that people can understand the difference between different types of places that call themselves museums. “Generally the public can distinguish what kind of experience they plan to have,” Lott told CityLab. “I don’t worry about people confusing the Met and the ice cream museum.”

Still, there’s something refreshing about the straightforward billing of the Selfie Fantasy in Ocean City, Maryland: “Ocean City’s first immersive selfie inspired Instagram worthy experience. Enjoy many different atmospheres—all while snapping awesome selfies.” There is also the House of Selfies in Las Vegas, and even the meta Museum of Selfies in Los Angeles, which have photo settings reminiscent of the food- and illusion-based places, and make it clear what the real subject of the experience is. It’s not ice cream or illusions or bright colors—it’s you, the visitor.

That concept might also offer up the strongest connection between the selfie factories and the M-word. Museum comes from a Greek term meaning “shrine to the muses.” The lofty institutions that use the term today are the spiritual descendants of 16th-century “cabinets of curiosities” and “wonder rooms,” in which private collectors gathered the objects that captured their attention. Maybe it’s not so big of a reach, then, to suggest that people might enter the cabinet of curiosities themselves, and find the muse right there in their camera lenses.

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