Fwd Thinker: Solving California’s Problems Starts with a Shared Understanding Through Data

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As California emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, data researchers are focusing on how the state is recovering. In this episode of Forward Thinkers Series, CA FWD CEO Micah Weinberg hosts Public Policy Institute of California’s Vice President of Research and Senior Fellow Sarah Bohn to discuss how the use of data can inform the best path forward to ensure that equity is embedded in the state’s recovery efforts.

Bohn outlines PPIC’s top research priorities on the economy coming out of the pandemic, which include understanding how California is doing on recovery from the fastest job loss on record, how the pandemic might be reshaping economic opportunities, and how different communities are faring.

“There was a big sector of the economy that couldn’t switch to remote work,” said Bohn. This sector included “essential workers” who were often young, people of color and low wage earners. “How are those Californians faring on the road to recovery, which is likely to be longer than the collapse was last Spring, unfortunately.”

The underrepresented communities most affected by the pandemic also face an uphill battle toward economic equity. According to Bohn, there are known factors including access to education that affect upward mobility. But, she says, there is more to understanding the economic stagnation.

“There are systemic factors that we need to understand better, things like discrimination, social networks that provide access to jobs, the kind of connections that help you move up in the economy that I think are critical to unpack and understand how we make choices to broaden the opportunity for mobility for more Californians,” said Bohn.

As PPIC studies economic mobility across the state, CA FWD’s California Dream Index tracks indicators that give a snapshot of how 11 regions are faring. The Index uses ten indicators including access to education, environmental health, economic opportunities and among others. Over the last decade, California saw significant stagnation in key areas like home ownership and access to affordable rent despite an economic boom that saw the state grow from the world’s ninth to fifth largest economy.

The focus on traditionally underrepresented communities, especially after renewed calls for racial equity and justice, also highlights the need for diversity in the research profession. Bohn explained, “We have to make sure that we are bringing diverse voices into the profession. We must mentor and support more people from backgrounds that haven’t historically been prevalent in the research community to make sure we are approaching the data and questions with different perspectives.”

She added as a researcher, “We all bring our perspective to data analysis, even if we want it to become completely unbiased. So, we have to be upfront about that and transparent because there are multiple ways to see data and evidence and interpret it to make policy choices.”

Bohn is a self-described “math nerd” with a deep concern for social and economic problems. And as she analyzes data, she reminds us that data is personal and reflects real lives and added, “When we understand the data and the evidence, I think it’s very powerful, but the stories of the people behind that data matter.”


Nadine Ono

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