Don’t Fear Artificial Intelligence, Plan for It

By Timothy Persons, GAO’s Chief Scientist and Managing Director of GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team.

Since the 1968 release of the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, artificial intelligence (AI) has captured our imagination, inspiring both wonder and fear. Chief among those fears? That computers like “HAL” will take control of our lives and eventually replace us.

But this fear obscures the fact that AI does not replace, as much as it augments, human intelligence. With proper oversight in place, AI can be harnessed to drive innovation and competitiveness.

How is AI being used?

Perhaps the best example of how AI is spurring growth is in the health care field. There is a global push to develop vaccines and therapeutics to save lives and end the COVID-19 pandemic such as Operation Warp Speed, a vaccine development program which we are reviewing on a periodic and ongoing basis. In a report issued earlier this year, we found that AI can be used to decrease the time and cost required to bring new drugs to market, a process which traditionally takes 10 to 15 years.

Machine learning, a field of AI in which software learns from data to perform a task, is already being used in the early stages of drug development. It is helping researchers discover new medicines, protect humans in preclinical testing, and improve clinical trial design. 

For all its benefits, AI does present new challenges to policymakers—namely, how to ensure that these tools are free of bias and protect consumer privacy. I discussed these considerations in more depth during a healthcare keynote at the 2020 Ai4 conference.

What’s the role of federal oversight?

Data is the lifeblood of AI, and having good data leads to a healthier system and to healthier operations. I explored this idea in my recent podcast with the former Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent.

Policymakers could collaborate with relevant stakeholders to establish uniform standards for data and algorithms. There are costs associated with this approach, including potentially time- and labor-intensive changes, but it is this type of standardization that paves the way to clear, transparent data.

Finally, policymakers could consider the human side of the equation. It is not strictly about getting the algorithm and the machine right. We need to rethink how we are training the next generation to use these technologies. This will be key to reaching beyond what our predecessors could have imagined.

What’s next?

AI is infinitely more complex than narrow cinematic narratives can capture. With ever-expanding capabilities, the onus is on policymakers to ensure that oversight measures are in place to collect quality, standardized data, while also ensuring investment in human capital. This is a topic that we at GAO plan to examine in more detail, both at next month’s Comptroller General Forum on AI Oversight and in the coming years. AI has broad impacts to not only health care, but also the transportation, defense, financial, and energy sectors, among others, as well as the economic and social well-being of all Americans.

Rather than replace human intelligence, as HAL attempted to do, artificial intelligence augments it and can enable us to be better, grander versions of ourselves. We should embrace it.


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On the 100th Anniversary of the Women’s Vote, the Debate on Equality Issues Continues

One hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee voted—by a slim margin of 50 to 47—to approve the women’s voting amendment. Tennessee was the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Ratification of the women’s vote in 1920 did not lead to immediate equality, nor did it lead to equal voting rights for all women. Women’s equality issues, and those facing racial minority groups, continue to be debated and addressed by federal, state, and local policymakers.

Today’s WatchBlog explores some of our work on the adoption of policies meant to promote girls’ and women’s achievement and equality.

Education and Title IX

School sports can promote confidence, social skills, and achievement for all students. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and all activities that receive federal funding—including sports.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, female participation in high school sports has increased. However, although schools are required to offer equal athletic opportunities, participation remains unequal. In 2017, our report on high school sports access and participation found that of the 77% of public high schools that offered sports, boys made up 57% of participation rates compared to 43% for girls. In 2018, another report on equal opportunities in high school sports found that the biggest factors that affected participation in public high school sports were the number of and interest in participation opportunities offered.

Women in leadership

Historically, women have been missing from leadership roles in business—particularly among financial service industries. While women representation has improved, certain leadership roles continue to have low levels of representation. For example:

  • In 2017, we reported that women held about 48% or less of non-senior management positions, but their representation in more senior management levels was smaller (29%).
  • In 2019, we found that the share of women board directors increased from 18% to 23% between 2015 and October 2018, but that women still comprised less than 25% of Federal Home Loan Bank board directors.
  • Similarly, our 2016 report on corporate boards showed that women held 16% of board seats in the S&P 500 in 2014—an increase from the percentage reported in 1997. Yet, even if equal numbers of women and men joined boards each year starting in 2015, we predicted that it would take 40 years for women’s representation to be equal with that of men.

Women were also underrepresented in the technology sector. For example, in 2017, we reported that women comprised only about 22% of technology workers. At that time, stakeholders we interviewed said that low representation of women could be caused by factors such as fewer women graduating with technical degrees, as well as companies’ hiring and retention practices.

Federal support of women-owned businesses

Over the years, the federal government has implemented several initiatives to support women-owned businesses. But are these programs effectively promoting opportunity and access for women?

Congress authorized the Women-Owned Small Business Program in 2000 to promote women-owned businesses by setting aside federal procurement opportunities for women in industries where they are underrepresented. The Small Business Administration (SBA) oversees this program and monitors third-party certifiers that determine whether or not a business can participate. However, when the SBA examined a sample of businesses that received contracts through the program in 2017, it found that 40% of these business were actually ineligible to participate. During our review of the Women-Owned Small Business Program in 2019, we found that SBA did not have plans to regularly monitor the compliance of these third-party certifiers. We recommended  that the SBA periodically review the eligibility of goods and services purchased through this program and implement recommendations from our 2015 report.

Similarly, as one of the country’s biggest advertisers, the federal government spends nearly $1 billion on advertising contracts. The government seeks to provide opportunities to award these contracts to certain types of businesses. In 2018, we found that the share of these contracts awarded to small disadvantaged businesses and those owned by women and minorities has generally increased over the years, averaging about 13% from 2013-2017. Most of the contracts were awarded from the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security.

As consumers, women may be paying more for certain products.

In 2018, we reported on concerns that women may pay more than men for similar consumer products, giving rise to what some call a “pink tax.” We examined 10 personal care products (e.g. deodorants, shampoo, shaving products).  After controlling for product size and other factors, we found that prices for half of the personal care items we looked at were higher for women, including deodorants and fragrances, but that some men’s items cost more, such as razors.

Whether the price differences were due to gender bias is unclear. Ad costs and consumer preferences also affect pricing. No federal law prevents firms from charging different prices for men’s and women’s products.


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USAspending.gov Contains a Treasure Trove of Information, But How Reliable Is It?

August 14 is the deadline for agencies, including those that led the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, to certify their spending data made available on USAspending.gov.

Federal agencies are required to report spending information under the DATA Act, and agency offices of inspectors general (OIG) are required to review and report on the quality of agency data. In FY 2019, USAspending.gov reported that the government spent about $4.45 trillion.

Today’s WatchBlog explores our review of 51 OIG reports that expressed concerns about the quality of the data that agencies reported for the first quarter of FY2019. Given that agencies are now required to report how they’re spending their COVID-19 funds on USAspending.gov, the reliability of this data is even more important.

Quality of data

The OIGs’ assessments of the quality of the data submitted varied, with most agencies’ data assessed as “high” quality—meaning error rates up to 20%. However, as shown in the figure below, 10 of 37 agencies with “high” quality data did not submit all the data that they should have.

Quality of Data Submitted under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, as Reported by Agencies’ Offices of Inspector General (First Quarter, FY 2019)

OIGs determined quality based on their assessments of how complete, timely, and accurate the data was (see figure below). Although most agencies submitted data to USAspending.gov on time, some information was missing and some was inaccurate according to the OIGs. Missing data was not assessed by the OIGs, and therefore was not considered in determining the quality level.

Error Rates of Data Submitted under the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 as Reported by Agencies’ Offices of Inspector General, by Range and Type of Error (First Quarter, FY 2019)

Missing and inaccurate data

Fourteen OIGs reported that their agencies’ submissions were missing data. For example, one OIG reported that its agency’s submission did not include almost $10 billion of award data. OIGs also reported that certain data reported on USAspending.gov did not agree with agency records. Other inaccuracies were due to agencies having difficulty interpreting definitions or following reporting standards correctly. External systems that incorporate recipient data also caused errors.

Other data limitations

We also reported in November 2019 on some important limitations that are not fully transparent on USAspending.gov. For example, Department of Defense procurement data isn’t shown on the website until 90 days after the agency reports it because of security concerns. Also, information about optional data and unreported data is not clearly explained on the website. These are important limitations of the data that users of USAspending.gov need to keep in mind as they search for COVID19-related and other federal spending.

Improvements needed

While we’ve seen improvements, for example, in the number of agencies that are meeting the timeframes set for reporting, there is still a ways to go. In some cases, errors occurred because agency systems still aren’t fully integrated, and not all of their systems can report the required information. Forty-four OIGs recommended ways to address these and other issues affecting the quality of the data.

For more information about our review, check out our full report.


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The Challenges of Going Back to School

States and local governments are grappling with how to bring K-12 students back to school safely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic—whether in person, virtually, or via a hybrid model. Yet, even before COVID-19, several schools across the country had to close temporarily due to hazardous conditions in their facilities that posed health and safety risks to students, teachers, and staff.

Today’s WatchBlog highlights the issues school districts need to address to make school buildings safe and to support learning as the 2020-2021 school year kicks off.

Poor building conditions

A leaky roof or a heating and cooling system needing repair can cause indoor air quality problems and exposure to mold or asbestos.

In 2019, we surveyed public school districts and found that an estimated 36,000 schools nationwide needed HVAC updates—a key component to ensuring proper ventilation in a school building.

In addition, the potential for lead to leach into water increases the longer the water remains in contact with faucets, pipes, or other plumbing that contains lead materials. Similar concerns exist for legionella—the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. These are particular concerns for schools that are out of use for extended periods during which water in the plumbing system remains stagnant. The Centers for Disease Control recommends flushing water systems after prolonged building shutdown but we found that nearly 70% of school districts do not have flushing programs in place.

Examples of Issues with Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems in Public Schools

To learn more about our findings on the conditions of school facilities, tune into our podcast with GAO’s K-12 education expert Jackie Nowicki.

High-poverty districts may struggle to fund repairs

The poorest school districts may be least able to afford necessary updates and repairs to their schools. We found significant differences between high-poverty and low-poverty districts in both the funding sources used and the total funds available for school facilities.

Estimated Percentage of School Districts by Primary Source of Funding for Public School Facilities

Based on our analysis of federal data on school district construction expenditures:

  • Capital construction expenditures, on average, were about $300 less per student in high-poverty districts compared to low-poverty districts.
  • About 1.5 million more students attended school in high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts, yet high-poverty districts spent about $1 billion less on capital construction.

Limited internet access

For school districts opting for virtual instruction this fall, reliable internet access at home will be crucial. In 2019, we found that school-age children in lower-income households may be more likely to rely on mobile wireless service for internet access. For their higher-income counterparts, in-home, fixed, high-speed internet access was more common. Mobile wireless can be less reliable and slower than in-home fixed service, which can make doing homework challenging. These difficulties will also disproportionately affect Black and Brown students, as roughly 80 percent of students attending low-income schools were either Black or Hispanic.

Students from lower-income households sometimes used public places like libraries and community centers to do their homework online—an option that may not be available due to COVID-19 closures and precautions.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate program provides discounts on telecommunications and internet access services to schools. Schools with higher percentages of lower-income students get greater discounts, but E-rate support does not extend beyond the school premises. We recommended that the FCC assess and publish the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of making off-premises wireless access eligible for federal E-rate support.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FCC announced a new initiative—the Keeping Americans Connected Initiative—that, among things, aims to use $16 billion in CARES Act funding to promote remote learning with the Department of Education.


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Podcast Roundup—The Federal Response to COVID-19

Do you typically tune in to podcasts during your daily commute? If so, you might have missed out on some of our latest podcasts while being housebound by the pandemic.

Catch up by checking out this overview of some of the Watchdog Report’s latest podcasts about COVID-19.

Contact tracing technology

Contact tracing may help reduce transmission rates for infectious diseases like COVID-19 by identifying and notifying people who may have been exposed. New technology, such as apps that can be downloaded to cellphones, could expedite contact tracing efforts. However, these apps also present challenges—such as adoption rates and privacy concerns.

We talked with a GAO health care and technology assessment expert about contact tracing technology and its uses:

2020 Census delays

The 2020 Census is well underway, but the pandemic is presenting some unique challenges. As the Census Bureau adapts its plans, delays and changes to the Bureau’s operations may affect Census 2020’s accuracy, timeliness, and costs. We talked to GAO experts on the 2020 Census and Information Technology to learn more.  

Emergency response

Doctors and nurses—even those that don’t work for the federal government—can help with federal response to a national emergency. The Department of Health and Human Services recently deployed about 1,200 of these professionals to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

However, HHS has experienced shortages in its supply of medical responders in the past, and has needed to rely on other agencies for help. We met with a GAO healthcare policy expert to learn more about HHS’s ability to respond to public health emergencies.

Fraud and COVID-19 federal assistance

In March, the federal government took extraordinary measures to help those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The $2.6 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, provides funds to help federal and state agencies respond to COVID-19. The CARES Act also gives loans and grants to help businesses and hospitals, and stimulus payments of up to $1,200 per person.

However, as this aid arrived, so did concerns about potential fraud. We sat down with GAO’s Director of Investigations to talk about the proper use of CARES Act funds, as well as how the public, government workers, and contractors can report allegations of improper activities.

Housing crisis

The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 has many households worried about paying their rents and mortgages on time. The CARES Act helps homeowners affected by COVID-19 through things like mortgage forbearance and a moratorium on foreclosures. But is there any assistance for renters? 

We interviewed our top housing expert about the impact of COVID-19 on renters.

Economic disruptions

U.S. workers, companies, and communities have often needed to alter how they work or operate because of external forces, such as trade agreements and defense or energy policy changes. But perhaps no single event has affected workers and companies like the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

We met with a GAO expert on employment and training programs to discuss federal economic assistance programs, and how they are being used to help those affected by COVID-19:

We’ll continue to cover the COVID-19 pandemic to provide you with our latest work on the federal response. You can subscribe to the Watchdog Report on Apple Podcasts.


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The Tech Behind COVID-19 Contact Tracing

Public health officials are working to contain the spread of COVID-19, in part by using contact tracing applications to help reduce transmission rates.

Contact tracing identifies infected individuals and notifies their “contacts”—i.e., all the people to whom they may have transmitted the disease. Infected individuals and their contacts are then asked to quarantine, get tested, and take other steps to reduce the spread of the disease.

Listen to our podcast with Karen Howard, a Director in GAO’s Science, Technology Assessment and analytics team, and read on in today’s WatchBlog for a closer look at our recent Spotlight on contact tracing apps and the opportunities and challenges they present. 

Contact tracing apps

Contact tracing apps use digital technology (like smartphones) to track the spread of infectious diseases. These apps detect contacts using either Bluetooth, GPS, or a combination of the two.

Bluetooth is the most common wireless technology used for contact tracing, and relies on anonymous codes shared between phones. These codes contain no information about location or user identity, which helps safeguard privacy. When a user downloads the app and comes into contact with a person who has (or later reports) an infection, the user would receive a notification such as the following: “You have recently been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.”

Opportunities

Traditional contact tracing methods require hundreds of thousands of trained contact tracers to identify individuals who could be exposed to a disease, contact them, and then see who they might also have exposed. 

Contact tracing apps can greatly expedite and automate this process. These apps could also slow the spread of disease more effectively because they can identify and notify contacts as soon as a user reports they are infected. And, unlike traditional contact tracing, these apps do not require users to remember or be acquainted with the people they have recently encountered.

Challenges

One major issue with this technology, however, is that some contacts are not detected or are falsely identified. For instance, Bluetooth apps may ignore barriers preventing exposure, such as walls or protective equipment, and incorrectly notify an individual of a contact even though they were not exposed to the virus. Likewise, apps may overlook exposure if 2 people were not in proximity long enough for it to register as a contact.

Low adoption rates pose another challenge. For example, some states in the U.S. may choose not to use contact tracing apps. The public may also hesitate to download these apps over data privacy concerns.

Additionally, contact tracing apps require regular access to smartphones and knowledge about how to install and use apps—which may be difficult for some vulnerable populations, including seniors.

For more about how to effectively incorporate contact tracing apps into the COVID-19 response, check out our recent Spotlight.


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Homeownership During A Recession

The current economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could make it more difficult for some people to purchase their first home, or for out-of-work homeowners to pay their mortgages.

The last recession—the Great Recession (2007-2011)—led to nearly a decade of decline in the national homeownership rate. The recession caused millions of homeowners to lose their homes and begin renting.

We recently reported on homeownership trends in 9 major American cities between 2010-2018—Chicago; Cleveland; Columbia, South Carolina; Denver; Houston; Pittsburgh; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Similar trends could occur during the current recession. Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Home prices and supply

The cost of buying a home went up in all 9 cities following the Great Recession. Prices increased significantly in some cities (e.g., Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle) and to a lesser degree in others (e.g., Chicago and Cleveland).

By 2018, the cities with greatest price increases also had severe constraints on housing supply.

Notes: First quarter 2010 = 100. Index is seasonally adjusted and adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items Less Shelter in U.S. City Average.

Types of homeowners

We found that homeowners during this period were increasingly older, more diverse, and had higher incomes. For example:

  • Most cities saw growth in homeownership among households aged 60 and older, often with corresponding decreases among younger owners.
  • The percentage of minority homeowners increased in most cities. However, White households still accounted for the highest percentage of homeowners in all cities. 
  • Cities like Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. saw an increase in the percentage of Asian and Hispanic homeowners. However, no city saw an increase in the percentage of Black homeowners.
  • The percentage of homeowners that reported annual incomes of $150,000 or more (the highest income category reported by the U.S. Census) increased in all 9 cities.

Lower homeownership rates among some groups could be due to higher student loan or household debt, the inability of relatives to assist with down payments, or losing a home to foreclosure. These factors, among many others, are likely to affect home ownership during the current pandemic and in the future.

Update: This graphic was updated on July 30. The original graphic did not match the graphic title.  

Note on graphic: Because the American Community Survey reports income information in categories, we did not adjust for inflation. Estimates in this figure have a margin of error of ± 2 percentage points or less at the 95 percent confidence level.

The current recession

The COVID-19 pandemic and recession will likely have a similarly significant impact on the domestic housing market. As discussed in our recent blog posts on the CARES Act and rental housing, the federal government has taken steps to mitigate the economic effects of COVID-19 by providing mortgage relief to homeowners.

To learn more about the housing market, check out our new report.


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It’s the 30th Anniversary of the ADA. What’s Changed?

July 26th marked 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The landmark civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including education, transportation, employment, and voting. For example, the ADA has had far-reaching implications for the nation’s K-12 public school system.

Today’s WatchBlog discusses recently-issued findings about the state of school facilities, where physical barriers that may limit access for people with disabilities persist, and highlights a selection of our ADA-related work over the years.

Despite progress, most school districts report barriers

In our latest ADA-related findings, GAO conducted a nationally-representative survey of school districts and found that about two-thirds of them had physical barriers that may limit access for people with disabilities. For example, steep ramps at school entrances can make it hard for people with disabilities to safely enter. An estimated 17 percent of districts nationwide—serving 16 million students—have at least one school that may be inaccessible for students with disabilities because of physical barriers.

Note: Barriers are structural or physical features that have the potential to limit access for people with disabilities. In practice, whether a particular barrier limits access depends on the nature of an individual’s disability. Barriers such as those presented in this figure may indicate a lack of physical access, but taken alone, do not establish whether a legal violation has occurred.

GAO toured schools to document potential barriers

We toured 55 schools across 16 districts—in California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, and Rhode Island—to document physical barriers in various school areas. All of the schools that we visited—regardless of the age or condition of the facility—had multiple barriers that could limit access for people with disabilities. We observed the most barriers at schools that were more than 25 years old.

Note: Not all schools we visited had libraries/media centers, auditoriums, gymnasiums, science labs, or elevators/platform lifts. Barriers are structural or physical features that have the potential to limit access for people with disabilities. In practice, whether a particular barrier limits access depends on the nature of an individual’s disability. Barriers such as those presented in this figure may indicate a lack of physical access but, taken alone, do not establish whether a legal violation has occurred.

Better information could help schools address barriers

When asked what federal assistance might be most helpful, school district and state officials commonly cited a need for training on ADA requirements that is affordable and specific to K-12 public schools.

We recommended that the Department of Justice—the agency responsible for providing technical assistance on the ADA–work with the Department of Education to help school districts and states better understand the ADA and provide technical help tailored to public school issues and needs.

GAO’s history of reporting on ADA compliance

For almost as long as the ADA has existed, GAO has evaluated efforts to comply with the law.

  • In 1993, we evaluated access for people with disabilities to goods and services from businesses and state and local governments.
  • In 1994, we reported on accessibility challenges facing transit agencies.
  • In 2001, we evaluated potential physical barriers at polling places throughout the country.
  • In 2011, we examined how federal agencies enforce students’ rights to testing accommodations.
  • In 2017, we visited polling places to observe barriers that may impede voting accessibility.

Accomplishments in voting accessibility 

In response to GAO’s recommendations, the Department of Justice expanded its Election Day observations to include assessment of the physical accessibility of polling places. Our work also influenced the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided funding to improve the accessibility of polling places and requires voting systems used in federal elections to be accessible to individuals with a disability.


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The Role and Risk of Herd Immunity When It Comes to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the concept of herd immunity is coming into sharper focus. But with limited information available on critical aspects of COVID-19, the concept remains a murky one.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at our recent Spotlight on the complexities of herd immunity.

What is herd immunity?

When a large enough portion of a population—say 70-90%—develops an immunity to a disease, that population is said to have achieved herd immunity. Establishing herd immunity reduces the likelihood that a non-immune person will be infected by the disease because they are less likely to come into contact with an infected person.

Once achieved, herd immunity could potentially slow down or stop the spread of COVID-19, support economic recovery, and restore medical capacity. However, achieving herd immunity in the absence of vaccines or treatments could also mean more deaths.

Why is it challenging to understand?

While data on previous disease outbreaks is available, we don’t yet have crucial data on COVID-19’s spread or severity. Consequently, researchers cannot say for certain when herd immunity is reached or, critically, how many lives might be lost when it is.

For instance, in order to determine when herd immunity will be reached, we need to know how contagious the disease is—which is affected by factors like how many susceptible people an infected person can infect. While researchers have developed estimates for how contagious COVID-19 is, uncertainties about case reporting and the accuracy of testing make this calculation difficult.

Other challenges include determining how long immunity to the disease might last. While analyses of related coronaviruses have shown that infection can provide some level of immunity, such immunity did not appear to last longer than a year.

What are the risks?

Immunity generally develops either through infection (natural immunity) or vaccination (resulting in vaccine-induced immunity), both of which carry high costs.

Achieving natural immunity, an unfavorable outcome by any measure, would mean exposing susceptible groups to a debilitating and potentially fatal disease—meaning more people could die in the process of achieving herd immunity.

Worse still, outbreaks may still occur when herd immunity is achieved because immunity may not be uniform across the general population. For example, contact among non-immune people may enable the disease to spread.

In the end, vaccine-induced herd immunity remains the more desirable goal, but, with challenges persisting in slowing the spread of COVID-19, natural disease progression may continue and with it, more deaths.

To learn more about herd immunity, check out our Science & Tech Spotlight on the topic.


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Targeting Federal Funding to Areas Experiencing Significant Poverty (interactive graphic)

Areas with high poverty rates can face systemic problems—like higher levels of crime and school dropouts—that can make it more difficult for residents to get out of poverty. To help, some federal agencies have been required to use at least 10% of program funds in counties with poverty rates of at least 20% over the last 30 years. These “persistent-poverty counties” are predominantly rural and mostly located in the south.

Legislation proposed in 2019 would expand this requirement to more agencies and programs, and also direct additional funds to census tracts (small subdivisions of a county that average about 4,000 residents) with poverty rates of at least 20% over the past 5 years. These are called “high-poverty census tracts,” and they tend to be located in urban areas.

So, which areas of the country could receive these funds if this legislation is approved? We developed an interactive map that shows the persistent-poverty counties and high-poverty census tracts in the United States. The below figure demonstrates how the graphic works (hover over an area to see additional details). Access the complete interactive graphic at GAO.gov or by clicking on the below image.

Learn more about our work on this issue by checking out our new report and podcast with GAO’s Bill Shear.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Bill Shear at shearw@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.

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