2021: The Biggest Stories We'll Be Following In The New Year
2020 was a year many of us would like to forget, but its effects are likely to be felt well into the new year.
From the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, to a string of horrifying incidents involving racism and police violence that have fueled a massive new social justice movement and calls for anti-racist reform, to the historic wildfire season that seems to signal our ever-changing climate, to a turbulent presidential election that reflected our deeply divided nation, there are plenty of stories still playing out — or waiting to happen — as the new year unfolds.
Here are some of the stories we'll be following closely:
- COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout: The ongoing coronavirus vaccine distribution will be a huge focus in 2021. This is the largest vaccine effort in history, and how well state and local authorities handle it will set the tone for the next pandemic — and for the incoming Biden administration, as well.
- Prioritizing Vulnerable Communities: As I continue to report on the rollout, I'll focus on vulnerable communities. We know that Latinos and Black Californians are much more likely to contract the virus and die. There have been pledges from elected leaders, from the federal government down to the county level, that these vaccines will be given to the people who need it most first, and vulnerable communities will be weighted. I'll be watching to see how that plays out in L.A. County.
Last year saw numerous reforms in L.A. County's criminal justice system. That happened in part because of the movement that sprang up in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, but also because of years of local activism and advocacy that laid the groundwork. L.A. is now in the process of reimagining not only how much to invest in law enforcement, but what law enforcement should be responsible for in the first place.
- Mental Health Calls: We're particularly interested in the push to remove law enforcement from mental health crisis calls. Experts say it's too easy for an encounter between cops and people living with mental illness to turn violent, or even deadly. For their part, police say they'd gladly give up their role as mental health first responders. Models that use clinicians and social workers instead of police are gaining steam. I'll follow those trends closely — at the city and county level. One of the things we'll track is an effort by L.A. County to adopt a no-police approach to mental health emergencies.
- DA George Gascón's Reform Campaign: Immediately upon taking office in December, Gascón unveiled a sweeping set of significant reforms, including an end to the use of most sentencing enhancements (which could lead to the early release of thousands of state prison inmates), an end to many misdemeanor charges, and a vow to end cash bail, among others. His effort has sent shockwaves through the criminal justice system, and he has encountered strong early resistance from some within his own office.
- Sheriff Oversight: Will the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission overcome resistance from Sheriff Alex Villanueva and use its new subpoena power to dig deep into alleged problems inside his department?
- Police Funding And Recidivism? How will shifts in funding from law enforcement to social and racial reconciliation programs ("defund the police" efforts) affect recidivism rates and public safety?
- Reopening Schools: Next year, many California school districts are likely to face mounting pressure to resume at least some in-person instruction. A group of prominent Democrats in the state legislature have proposed Assembly Bill 10, which, beginning in March, would require districts to reopen campuses if their county is not in the "purple tier," the most restrictive level on the state's coronavirus rating scale. EdSource reports the measure would need a two-thirds majority to pass. Still, recent surveys of Los Angeles parents show families are sharply divided over whether they'd want to send their kids back to campus.
- College Funding: The fallout from the drop in state tax revenue caused by the pandemic is expected to hit public universities hard in 2021. There were relatively small budget cuts in 2020 — about 6% for the California State University system, 7% for the University of California, and 8% for the state's community colleges — and the systems managed to get by without tuition hikes. But in 2021, the college systems' governing boards may have to resort to layoffs, furloughs and/or tuition increases to balance their budgets.
- Diversity Classes: Also expect to hear more about efforts to diversify campuses in 2021. Cal State has mandated that all students take a three-unit ethnic studies course starting in 2023, and we'll hear more debate in the new year over what those courses will look like.
- College Enrollment: After devastating declines in college enrollment during the pandemic, especially among low-income high school students and students of color, higher education advocates are looking hopefully for signs of recovery.
- Back To School? Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed the extreme vulnerability of non-college-educated workers. Thus far, laid-off workers have not returned to school as they did during the Great Recession. That could change in 2021 and raise questions of whether institutes of higher education can adapt to the needs of these potential new students.
- Child Care Affordability: More than 2,400 California child care centers and homes have already permanently closed since the start of the pandemic, and some school districts have laid off early education staff. That means the already difficult task of finding affordable child care is likely to get even harder in 2021.
- Developing Brains: Critical brain development happens in the first five years of life, and quality early childhood education can set children up for success in school and beyond. I'll be tracking what we learn about how the pandemic has impacted children's growth and development — including mental health — and how parents and providers can support children.
- Free Preschool? Just as 2020 came to a close, California unveiled a long-awaited Master Plan for Early Learning and Care. It lays out ambitious goals for offering free preschool to all four-year-olds in the state, and expanding paid family leave, but some advocates question how the state will pay for all of this. I'll be watching Gov. Gavin Newsom's budget and the coming legislative session for answers.
P.S. I want to hear what you think we should be covering on the early childhood beat. This short survey will help shape our reporting in 2021!
SCIENCE AND ENVIRONMENT
- Drought: Drought conditions have come roaring back and over the next few months we'll find out if they're here to stay. We got a bit of rain at the end of December, but not enough to catch us up to where we should be at this time of year.
- Wildfires: In that same vein, if precipitation doesn't show up, our landscapes will be drier earlier in the year, meaning fire season could show up sooner as well.
- Adapting To Climate Change: Given that escalating disasters make swaths of California unlivable for months at a time, there are big questions around what sorts of proactive measures the state and local governments are taking to adapt. And whether as a society we'll move to ensure that it's not just the wealthy who'll manage to cope with the crisis, but everyone else as well.
HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS
- Project HomeKey Rollout: Municipalities are buying hotels and converting them into permanent supportive housing for homeless people as part of an $800-million state grant program called Project HomeKey. More than 40 sites in Southern California are in the works, expected to provide 2,000 homeless beds in just a few months.
- Looming Eviction Tsunami: 365,000 households could end up evicted and homeless in L.A. County because of the pandemic, according to a UCLA study. State eviction protections have been in place since March, basically barring evictions if renters have financial hardships due to Covid-19, or at least delaying those evictions to Feb. 1. L.A. County's own eviction ban is set to expire on Feb. 28.
- Anti-Camping Law Revisited: While the city of L.A. has an anti-camping law, courts have found it unconstitutional. Recently a group of city council members introduced a motion to rewrite the law, banning camping in specific areas. Opponents argued it would further criminalize homelessness and the vote was tabled. The debate is sure to heat up again in 2021, especially since new councilmember Nithya Raman won her seat campaigning against punitive enforcement measures such as encampment sweeps.
TRANSPORTATION AND MOBILITY
- Public Transit: Like many sectors, L.A. County's public transit system took a major hit due to the pandemic. Ridership tanked, but the major blow has been plummeting sales tax revenue, which typically makes up about half of the agency's operating budget each year. L.A. Metro has received some federal aid, but we'll get a better sense in the coming year just how serious the long-term impacts will be. The agency is also exploring some changes aimed at addressing inequity on its system, spurred by the national uprising over police brutality and systemic racism. That includes exploring a plan to replace armed police on its system with unarmed "transit ambassadors," as well as studying how Metro's trains and buses could go fare-free as soon as next year. In 2021, I'm expecting to see those two plans take shape, and I'll be here to report on what that means for you.
- Police And Street Safety: The most common interaction people have with police is in traffic stops. Over the summer, I examined how other cities have reduced crashes and saved lives not through enforcement by armed police, but with substantial investments in better street design and lower speed limits. The L.A. City Council is currently exploring similar alternatives here, and I'll be keeping an eye on this issue to see what — if anything — changes.
- Slow Streets: The pandemic also reshaped how Angelenos saw their neighborhoods. With so many people stuck in their homes, unable or unwilling to drive to a movie theater, restaurant or gym, fresh air and exercise on residential streets became a vital escape. And to help create safe space for people to walk, run, bike, skateboard and such, the city launched a program to get drivers to slow down and share the road. That program, Slow Streets, has spread to 30 neighborhoods and city leaders are considering making it a permanent fixture. I'll be following this story for developments.
ASIAN AMERICAN COMMUNITIES
- 2020 brought a host of challenges for Asian American communities, ranging from bias incidents fanned by racist rhetoric from President Trump to the pandemic's economic fallout on Asian-owned businesses — not to mention the impact of the virus itself, especially on certain ethnic communities. We'll be documenting efforts this year to respond to those setbacks.
- Also, how will immigration policies change under the new Biden Administration and how will that affect the Asian American population? Nearly 60% are foreign-born, and among that group, there are those lacking legal status who could have their futures decided by how the new president handles programs such as DACA.
- A Possible Undercount? This year, we'll see the final count from the 2020 Census, which will be used to determine how many seats states have in Congress and how much federal funding local agencies can get. The census faced many challenges, including a pandemic that delayed the start and made outreach more difficult, plus a decision by the Trump Administration to put the U.S. Census Bureau on a tighter schedule. Experts fear these challenges could result in an undercount. I'll be watching to see how the numbers break down in L.A. County, the hardest-to-count region in the country.
- Counting Immigrants: The Trump Administration also proposed a policy to subtract immigrants without legal status from the final numbers. The Census Bureau will reveal population tallies with some immigrants lacking legal status removed — though it's not clear how that will be done. The whole issue might go to the Supreme Court again. (The justices heard arguments recently, but put off a direct ruling.)
- Political Representation: We'll also find out soon if California — or L.A. more specifically — loses any seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. That would be a first in history.
- City Hall Corruption: Federal authorities have filed charges against multiple political operatives and current or former city officials associated with now-former City Councilman José Huizar. They allege Huizar and company solicited gifts of cash and casino vacations in exchange for greasing the skids on major development projects in downtown L.A. Huizar pleaded not guilty and his trial is scheduled for June.
- City Budget: The pandemic has gouged a massive hole in the city's budget — $675 million and widening. My reporting in 2021 will focus on several angles: How will the plan to fill the budget gap affect city leaders' promises to heed activists' calls to re-imagine public safety? And how will cuts to programs and personnel costs — including furloughs or layoffs — impact the most vulnerable Angelenos?
- Post-Pandemic Recovery: COVID brought on the greatest wave of job loss since the Great Depression. Millions of Californians who were already struggling to pay rent have lost income and are facing a job market that may be forever changed. L.A.'s low-income workers in restaurants, hotels and other hospitality fields have been hit hardest. What will it take for those workers — and the industries that employ them — to recover
- Unemployment Breakdowns: Last year tested the limits of California's system for delivering unemployment benefits. For many jobless Angelenos, the system failed. Will the state's plans to overhaul its Employment Development Department help in getting payments to people in desperate financial straits? What will happen to those who've been shut out of the system for months on end?
Of course, we can't predict all the big stories we'll cover in 2021. For one thing, our coverage will depend partly on what we learn from you along the way.
As KPCC/LAist's new engagement reporter, my job will be to try to make sense of this complicated place we call home by sharing your stories, answering your questions, and keeping folks accountable with fact-checking and reporting. If you don't see yourself or your community reflected in coverage of L.A., I especially want to hear from you. (Seriously, email me!) I'll be reading the questions you send us here at LAist and asking you some of my own.