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 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
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From Search and Rescue to Special Forces: The U.S. Coast Guard’s Many Missions

The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for conducting a number of essential activities, including protecting ports and safeguarding marine resources.

However, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Coast Guard’s responsibilities have increasingly focused on homeland security missions, and it has faced increased demands on its workforce.

We’ve written a number of reports about how the Coast Guard can prioritize its resources to effectively conduct its diverse missions.

Today’s WatchBlog explores.

Search and rescue

The Coast Guard maintains over 200 boat and air stations, boats, planes, and helicopters to conduct search and rescue missions along U.S. coasts, lakes, and waterways.

However, in 2013, the Coast Guard identified 18 boat stations with overlapping coverage. In other words, these boat stations could be permanently closed without affecting the Coast Guard’s ability to effectively conduct search and rescue missions in those areas.

We recommended that the Coast Guard close these stations, which could save the agency up to $290 million over 20 years.

Maritime safety

The Coast Guard maintains over 45,000 signs, markers, buoys, and lighthouses to help mariners safely navigate through U.S. waters. But the condition and functionality of these navigational aids has declined in recent years. Meanwhile, the overall costs for repairing or replacing them has gone up—from $12 million in FY 2014 to $20 million in FY 2018.

The Coast Guard is considering ways to address this situation, such as replacing steel buoys with cheaper-to-maintain foam buoys. To ensure that these navigational aids perform effectively, we recommended that the Coast Guard develop a plan that includes its desired outcomes and milestone dates.  

The photos below show examples of deteriorating conditions of navigational aids.

Countering drugs and terrorism

The Coast Guard uses specialized forces to handle drug trafficking and terrorism threats. These forces often rely upon similar skill sets, so most of the specially trained units can perform similar (if not the same) missions.

We found that this can potentially result in overlapping responsibilities and underused units. Officials from some units we interviewed said that they experienced periods when they weren’t being used fully, while other similar units turned down operations due to a lack of available personnel.

We recommended the Coast Guard assess the extent of this unnecessary overlap to potentially save money and streamline its specialized units.

Assessing needs

Since the Coast Guard’s responsibilities have grown, the agency recently told Congress that it doesn’t have enough people to meet all its mission demands.

But we found that the Coast Guard doesn’t have a complete picture of its workforce. For example, it has only assessed the workforce needs (both number of people and types of skills) for 2% of its units.

We recommended the agency bolster efforts to complete its workforce assessments so that it can ensure that it has the right number of people with the right sets of skills to meets its needs.

  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Nathan Anderson,
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Prioritizing the Needs of the Federal IT Workforce

The federal government spends over $90 billion on information technology (IT) every year. However, IT projects frequently fail, go over budget, or face unexpected delays. Additionally, threats to federal IT infrastructure continue to grow in number and sophistication.

Federal agencies can improve the success of these projects, as well as the government’s ability to mitigate and respond to cybersecurity threats, by ensuring that their IT staff has the required knowledge, skills, and abilities.

However, we found that federal agencies have not made planning for their IT workforce a priority—despite 20 years’ worth of laws and guidance that have called for them to do so.

Today’s WatchBlog explores how federal agencies could improve planning for the needs of their IT workforce.

Identifying IT staff

The federal government needs a qualified, well-trained cybersecurity workforce to protect vital IT systems. To help agencies identify their critical workforce needs, they were required to identify and categorize all of their IT and cyber-related positions.

However, most of the agencies we reviewed likely miscategorized the work involved in many positions. For example, 22 of 24 agencies assigned a “non-IT” code to about 19% of their IT positions.

Unless agencies improve how they track and code their IT and cyber workforce, they may not have the necessary information to effectively examine their cybersecurity workforce and identify critical workforce needs.

Following key practices

We developed a framework in 2016 that federal agencies can use to plan ahead for the needs of their IT workforce.

This framework focuses on 8 essential activities, including:

  • Implementing a workforce planning process
  • Assessing gaps in skills and staffing
  • Developing strategies and activities to address these gaps (e.g., using special hiring authorities to hire staff with required skills)

In October 2019, we found that federal agencies varied widely in their efforts to implement such activities.

Specifically, many of the 24 agencies we reviewed had made progress in assessing gaps in skills and staffing—but most had not developed strategies to address these gaps. Additionally, most agencies had not fully implemented a workforce planning process.

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When it comes to taxes, there’s a transparency gap in the gig economy

July 15 is the deadline for tax return filing and payments and the same deadline for estimated quarterly payments. Workers in the “gig” economy face unique challenges to fulfill these obligations. Today’s WatchBlog looks at a large subset of the gig economy, platform workers who offer goods or services —such as transportation, retail, or short-term lodging— and connect with customers through an app on a phone or other online platform. Studies suggest there could be as many as 1.5 million to 2 million platform workers in the U.S who do this type of work.

Platform workers may be affected by COVID-19 as their customers either increase (package delivery) or decrease (rentals) use of the service. In addition, it is uncertain how many platform workers may receive either the economic impact payment or unemployment benefits available from recent legislation to assist workers during the pandemic—an issue that GAO is currently reviewing.

How do platform economy workers and companies pay taxes?

Unfortunately, platform workers may not realize that a company is treating them as independent contractors rather than employees, and as such, these workers have different tax requirements. For example, platform companies generally don’t withhold federal income or employment taxes for independent contractors. Instead, the worker is supposed to pay these taxes each quarter to the Internal Revenue Service.

Additionally, a platform company that only transfers funds between buyers and sellers may have reduced reporting requirements.  As a result, GAO found that platform workers may not get information on their earnings, which makes it difficult for them to comply with their tax reporting requirements. It also creates enforcement challenges for IRS. The below graphic shows how workers in the same job might have different tax responsibilities under a platform economy vs. a typical employer.

What is the IRS doing to help platform workers?

To help raise awareness, the IRS developed a communications plan focused on workers in the platform economy (which IRS calls the gig economy), which is a good start.

Still, GAO identified seven actions that could help improve tax compliance for workers. For example, some platform companies only report total annual payments for workers over $20,000 and 200 transactions—an amount well over the average gross pay from a single company for many platform workers. Changing the rule to lower reporting thresholds would provide workers with more information to help them comply with their tax obligations. GAO is also recommending that IRS allow voluntary tax withholding. Be sure to check out the full report.

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What can the Great Recession teach us about rent affordability in the age of Coronavirus?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides relief to some homeowners. But what about renter households?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and are struggling to make rent payments.

In today’s WatchBlog, we look at government actions in response to the coronavirus that affect renter households and the rental market, including how current rental market conditions compare to those from the Great Recession.

You can also tune into our podcast with GAO’s top housing expert Daniel Garcia-Diaz to learn more about rental housing trends.

What makes rent unaffordable?

Rent is considered unaffordable if households pay more than 30% of their income for it. For decades, rent costs have risen faster than income, which has made rent unaffordable for a growing portion of households in the U.S., particularly those with low incomes. Low wage growth among lower-income households and increasing costs to build new apartments have long contributed to this rising unaffordability.   

How did the Great Recession impact rent affordability?

The Great Recession (2007 to 2011) led to higher rents because of an increased competition for affordable units and a limited supply of new affordable units:

  • Millions of households lost their homes to foreclosure during the recession and became renters. Impacts to these households’ credit scores along with tighter mortgage underwriting standards have kept many in the rental market.
  • Millennials, many of whom entered the job market around the time of the recession, had to compete for fewer opportunities. Poor economic conditions delayed homeownership and kept them in the rental market longer than previous generations.
  • The construction industry, which contracted during the recession, struggled to build enough new rental units to keep up with demand. Most of the rental construction following the crisis concentrated on high-rent, luxury units.

How could COVID-19 impact rents?

Federal, state, and local governments have taken actions in response to the coronavirus that could affect rental housing affordability:

  • As we saw in the Great Recession, when millions of homeowners lost their homes, they entered the rental market and drove up rent prices. The CARES Act allows some homeowners affected by the coronavirus to delay mortgage payments for up to a year. This step could help rent affordability if it prevents foreclosures on the millions of homeowners who may no longer be able to afford their mortgage payments. However, if the economic effects of COVID-19 last longer and foreclosure preventions expire,, the rental market could see higher demand, causing increases to rent.
  • The CARES Act temporarily prohibits landlords with federally backed mortgages from evicting tenants for not paying rent. In addition, some state and local governments have implemented their own eviction moratoriums. However, renters are still on the hook for rent payments, which could become unaffordable due to reduced or lost wages.
  • In some regions, state and local governments have allowed construction of new rental units to continue; while in others, work was stopped to slow the spread of coronavirus. In both cases, the construction industry faces economic uncertainties, which could further reduce production of new rental units. Fewer new rental units will lead to higher rents.

Prolonged distress in the housing market will likely have negative impacts on rent affordability. In our 2020 report, we found that there were more than 3 million additional households with rent burden in 2017 than there were in 2007, half of which paid more than 50% of their household income for rent.

Unaffordable rent was most common and most severe among lower-income households, with most of the poorest households paying more than half of their income in rent. The figure below shows the estimated percentage of renter households and rent burdens by income in 2017.

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

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Racial Disparities in Federal Employment, Lending, and Housing

Over the past several years, GAO has been asked to examine various racial inequalities in economic markets. In today’s WatchBlog, we explore our work on racial disparities in the federal workforce, lending, and housing.

Federal employment

As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government judges its own employment practices by whether they advance the American ideal of equal opportunity for all. We have often been tasked with examining equal opportunity employment issues in various federal agencies—including hiring, promotions, and discipline.

For example, while the State Department’s workforce has grown more diverse, racial or ethnic minorities are still underrepresented, particularly in the senior ranks. Racial or ethnic minorities in State’s Civil Service were 4% to 29% less likely to be promoted than their white coworkers with similar education, occupation, or years of federal service.

As another example, the U.S. Agency for International Development has worked toward increasing staff diversity. Over the period of 2002–2018, the proportion of racial or ethnic minorities in USAID’s full-time, permanent, career workforce rose from 33 to 37%, but proportions of some groups fell. Also, racial or ethnic minorities in the Civil Service were 31 to 41% less likely to be promoted than whites with similar jobs or years of service.

We’ve also looked at disparities in the military justice system and testified on this issue. Among other things, we found that Blacks, Hispanics, and males were more likely than Whites or females to be tried in general and special courts-martial, in all military services. We also noted that the services don’t record information on race and ethnicity the same way, making it more difficult to identify disparities.

In each of these cases, we recommended ways to improve upon existing efforts or to identify and address barriers to equal opportunity and fair treatment.

Business and farm lending

GAO experts have testified that discrimination may play a role in certain types of nonmortgage lending. For example, in 2008, we reported that available studies indicate that African-American owned small businesses are denied loans more often or pay higher interest rates than white-owned businesses with similar risk characteristics.

However, potential discriminatory patterns in nonmortgage lending are difficult to track. Race data is only collected on loans originated or guaranteed by the federal government—meaning that banks and other lenders do not collect this information.

In 2019, we looked at USDA data on farm loans. We found that women and minority farmers and ranchers received a disproportionately small share of farm loans. For example, while women and minority-owned farms represented 17% of primary agricultural producers, they comprised only 13% of farms loans and 8% of the total outstanding farm debt.

According to farm lending stakeholders, minority and women farmers can have difficulty obtaining agricultural credit from private-sector lenders because they operate smaller farms and in some cases do not meet standards for farm revenue, applicant credit history, and collateral. However, farm advocates we interviewed also noted that minority farmers face additional challenges related to historical discrimination and ongoing unfair treatment by lenders when trying to obtain private agricultural credit.

Congress has recognized some of the challenges these groups face by requiring USDA to target “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” in programs that make direct loans or that guarantee loans made. Additionally, an ongoing rulemaking pursuant to a provision in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act would modify the prohibition on collecting data on the personal characteristics of loan applicants.

Homeownership vs. Rentership

Homeownership is a big part of the American Dream—but disparities in mortgage lending have been well documented.

Since the 2007–2009 financial crisis, the national homeownership rate has stabilized; however, not all Americans have benefitted from the recovery. Even in housing markets that appear to be thriving, many still find themselves locked out of homeownership.

Understanding the factors that explain disparities in homeownership has been difficult. In July 2010, Congress acted on a recommendation we made, which amended Home Mortgage Disclosure Act to require lenders to gather data on the credit scores of mortgage loan applicants as a way to identify potential discrimination in mortgage lending.

In the rental housing market, Black households were more likely to rent than buy compared to other groups (Whites, Hispanics, and Asians). This was a growing trend, according to our June 2020 report. Rentership among Black households increased from 54 percent in 2001 to 58 percent in 2017. In contrast, rentership among White households was lowest among the race/ethnicity groups, and about half the rate of Black households (ranging from 26 to 29 percent from 2001 through 2017).

Similarly, Black households were more likely to face higher rent burdens (rent as a percentage of income). Rent burden was about 10 percentage points more common among Black and Hispanic households than White households in 2017. This disparity was due to sizable differences in median income. In 2017, estimated median income was $63,704 for White households, $49,793 for Hispanic households, and $40,232 for Black households.

Want to learn more about our work on affordable housing and federal employment trends? Check out our key issue pages on Affordable Rental Housing and Leading Practices in Human Capital Management.

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Racial Disparities in Health Care and the Role of Government

Over the past several years, GAO has been asked to examine various racial inequalities in public programs and we have made recommendations to find and address them.

Today’s WatchBlog looks at disparities in health care.

Maternal Mortality

Our work has found disparities between White and minority groups’ health care outcomes and access to health care. For example, in March, we reported that non-Hispanic Black mothers were more than 3 times more likely to die during child birth than non-Hispanic White mothers. Contributing factors that are considered when reviewing these deaths include systemic factors, such as access to care, as well as patient and provider factors, such as lack of knowledge of warning signs, or missing or delayed diagnoses.

Figure: Pregnancy-Related Deaths per 100,000 Live Births by Ethnic/Racial Group, 2007-2016

Veterans’ Health

We have also reported on disparities in health care outcomes for our nation’s Black veterans. In December 2019, we reported that the Veterans Administration has identified worse health care outcomes among racial and ethnic minority veterans, mirroring trends across the United States. In 2011, the VA found outcomes for controlling blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol levels were significantly worse for Black veterans than they were for White veterans. In 2019, the VA reported evidence of disparities in health care outcomes within VA medical centers in the form of lower survival rates Black veterans with cancer and cardiovascular-related illnesses compared with other minority veterans and White veterans. Our report did not look at differences in medical treatments and how they might impact outcomes. However, in both our reports on maternal and veteran outcomes, we recommended that federal agencies improve their collection and use of data to help inform decisions that could improve health care outcomes for Black and other patients.

Environmental Health Factors

In September 2019, we found that low-income and minority communities across the country were disproportionately exposed to facilities that emit harmful air pollution (e.g., industrial or waste disposal facilities). For example, the predominantly minority and low-income community of West Oakland, California, is surrounded by 3 interstate freeways and abuts a major port that brings up to 3,000 trucks to the area each day. A study conducted in 2008 found that West Oakland residents were exposed to diesel pollutants at levels almost 3 times higher than average background levels in the surrounding area. 

In addition to harmful air pollution, other environmental justice issues include unsafe drinking water, proximity to chemical facilities, and risks from climate change and natural disasters. Federal agencies have been making efforts to identify and address environmental justice issues for more than 25 years. However, we have made a number of recommendations to improve this effort, including 24 recommendations in our September 2019 report, which have not been implemented by agencies.

For more about our work on Health Care policy and trends, check out our key issues pages.

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Racial Disparities in Education and the Role of Government

The death of George Floyd and other Black men and women has prompted demonstrations across the country and brought more attention to the issues of racial inequality. Over the past several years, GAO has been asked to examine various racial inequalities in public programs and we have made recommendations to address them.

Today is the first of 3 blog posts in which we will address these reports. The first deals with equality in education.

School Discipline

Unequal treatment can start at a young age. In 2018, we reported that starting in pre-school, children as young as 3 and 4 have been suspended and expelled from school—a pattern that can continue throughout a child’s education. In K-12 public schools, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined (e.g., suspended or expelled), according to our review of the Department of Education’s national civil rights data.

These disparities were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended. For example, while only 15.5% of public school students were Black, about 39% of students suspended from school were Black—an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points (see figure).

Students Suspended from School Compared to Student Population, by Race, Sex, and Disability Status, School Year 2013-14

Note: Disparities in student discipline such as those presented in this figure may support a finding of discrimination, but taken alone, do not establish whether unlawful discrimination has occurred.

Minority students may also be more likely to attend alternative public schools because of issues like poor grades and disruptive behavior. In 2019, we found that Black boys transferred to alternative schools at rates higher than any other group for disciplinary reasons, and that they, along with Hispanic boys and boys with disabilities, attended alternative schools in greater proportions than they did regular public schools attended by the majority of U.S. public school students.  For example, Black boys accounted for 16 percent of students at alternative schools, but only 8 percent of students at regular public schools in 2015-16.

Education Quality and Access

The link between racial and ethnic minorities and poverty is long-standing. Studies have noted concerns about this segment of the population that falls at the intersection of poverty and minority status in schools and how this affects their access to quality education. In 2018, we reported that during high school, students in high-poverty areas had less access to college-prep courses.  Schools in high-poverty areas were also less likely to offer math and science courses than most public 4-year colleges expected students to take in high school. The racial composition of the highest poverty schools was also 80% Black or Hispanic.

The Department of Education has several initiatives to help students prepare for college. For example, GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) seeks to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. In 2016, Education awarded about $323 million in grants through GEAR UP.

In our 2018 report, we described  an investigation the Department of Education conducted in 2014 looking at  whether Black students in a Virginia school district had the same access to educational opportunities as other students. It found a significant disparity between the numbers of Black and White high school students who take AP, advanced courses, and dual-credit programs.

Addressing Disparity in Schools

So, what can be done to identify and address racial disparities in K-12 public schools? In 2016, we recommended that the Department of Education, which is to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools, routinely analyze its Civil Rights dataset, which could help it identify issues and patterns of disparities. Our recommendation was implemented in 2018.

The Department of Justice also plays a role in enforcing federal civil rights laws in the context of K-12 education. For example, it monitors and enforces open federal school desegregation orders where Justice is a party to the litigation.  At the time of our study, many of these desegregation orders had been in place for 30 and 40 years.   For example, in a 2014 opinion in a long-standing desegregation case, the court described a long period of dormancy in the case and stated that lack of activity had taken its toll, noting, that the district had not submitted the annual reports required under the consent order to the court for the past 20 years. In 2016, we recommended that the Department of Justice systematically track key summary information across its portfolio of open desegregation cases to help inform its monitoring. Our recommendation was implemented in 2019.

To learn more about GAO’s work on education, visit our key issues pages on Ensuring Access to Safe, Quality K-12 Education and Postsecondary Education Access and Affordability.

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GAO’s review of the federal response to COVID-19

Facing unprecedented national public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, federal agencies moved swiftly to distribute funds and implement programs to help people and businesses. But, as a tradeoff for that speedy response, agencies have made only limited progress so far in achieving transparency and accountability goals.

On June 25, we issued our first audit report on the federal response to COVID-19 under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) and other relief laws. The CARES Act requires GAO to issue bi-monthly reports through the first year of the law, in addition to several other related studies. Today’s WatchBlog explores what we’ve found so far.

The response to COVID-19

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Congress enacted 4 relief laws as of June 2020, including the CARES Act. These laws have appropriated about $2.6 trillion in relief funds across the federal government.

Six areas of spending account for about 85% of the total appropriation for COVID-19 health and economic relief, as of May 2020. It is important to note, however, that total federal spending data are not yet available because federal agencies are not required to report spending until June 30, 2020.

The figure below shows appropriation for COVID-19 relief as of May 2020.

Our review and what we found

In our first report, we provide Congress with information and some recommendations on topics such as:

  • COVID-19 testing. We found that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)has not maintained complete or consistent data on the amount of COVID-19 testing that has been done nationwide. As a result, it has been harder to track infections, mitigate effects, and make decisions on when to reopen communities. However, on June 4, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance to laboratories that identifies required data reporting standards related to national testing. We will continue to examine coronavirus-related testing activities for future reports.

COVID-19 Drive-Thru Testing in Tampa, FL

  • Distribution of supplies. The need for critical equipment and supplies to respond to COVID-19 across the nation quickly exceeded availability in the Strategic National Stockpile. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Defense to make more supplies available. However, federal, state, and local officials have expressed concerns about the distribution, acquisition, and adequacy of those supplies. We will continue to examine these issues as well as the administration’s efforts to monitor and address stockpile needs.
  • Economic impact payments. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Treasury disbursed 160.4 million payments worth $269.3 billion. However, the agencies had trouble delivering payments to some individuals, risking fraud and making payments to ineligible individuals. For example, according to the Treasury’s Inspector General, as of April 30, almost 1.1 million payments totaling nearly $1.4 billion had gone to deceased people. GAO recommends that IRS consider cost-effective options for notifying ineligible recipients on how to return payments.
  • Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). As of May 30, the Small Business Administration (SBA) processed more than $512 billion in 4.6 million guaranteed loans through private lenders to small businesses and other organizations adversely affected by COVID-19. SBA moved quickly to establish a new nationwide program, but this hastened pace contributed to confusion and questions about the program and raised program integrity concerns.

Borrowers and lenders raised a number of questions about the program and eligibility criteria, leading the SBA and the Treasury to issue a number of interim final rules and several versions of responses to frequently asked questions (see figure). However, questions and confusion remained. In June 2020, Congress enacted the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act of 2020, which clarified several key program components.

In addition, to help quickly disburse funds, SBA allowed lenders to rely on borrower certifications to determine borrowers’ eligibility, increasing the potential for fraud. GAO recommends that SBA develop and implement plans to identify and respond to risks in the PPP program to ensure program integrity, achieve program effectiveness, and address potential fraud.

How can you find out more about GAO’s work on the CARES Act and coronavirus? 

  • Live Feed of Reports: Embed our feed on your website. It will be updated with new reports as they are published.  
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  • Twitter: The fastest way to know we have issued new work is to follow us on Twitter @usgao.
  • Open Recommendations: Keep track of related open recommendations
  • Blog Posts: Subscribe to our WatchBlog for the latest COVID-19 posts.
  • Previously Issued Work by Topic: Take a look at our section on Past Pandemic-Related Reports.

How can you report suspected fraud to GAO?

It can be challenging to identify where to report your concerns when you have an allegation of fraud, waste, or abuse. But you can report any of your concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic or the CARES Act to GAO’s FraudNet.

Use any of these 3 methods for reporting your concerns to FraudNet:

  • Our online reporting portal
  • Via email at
  • Or by calling our hotline at 1-800-424-5454

Due to the coronavirus pandemic and recommendations to practice social distancing, FraudNet staff are working remotely. As a result, we strongly encourage you to submit your concern online so we may provide a more timely response and continue to serve the public.

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Animal Research in the Federal Government: A Search for Alternatives

Researchers have frequently used animals to study disease, test product safety, experiment, or teach. Such research has led to countless breakthroughs, including advances in medical treatments and surgical procedures, life-saving medications and vaccines, and consumer product safety to name a few.

But there’s a growing number of alternatives available that let researchers replace, reduce, or refine their use of animals for research and testing.

In today’s WatchBlog, we look at how the federal government is helping to ensure the humane treatment of research animals and how agencies are promoting and developing alternatives to animal testing.

Using data to track animal welfare

About 20 federal agencies use animals for research—much of which focuses on human health and medicine, but also includes testing for agriculture, animal health, and product safety.

As a check on their practices, agencies must provide data to the National Institutes of Health and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service about how they use and care for animals, including

  • the number of animals agencies use that are covered by the Animal Welfare Act (e.g., warm-blooded animals like dogs, cats, and monkeys)
  • proof that agencies comply with animal welfare standards
  • plans for how agencies alleviate animal pain or distress

In our 2018 report, we found that while research facilities submitted required information to the NIH, facilities were not accurately reporting their animal use to the APHIS because of inadequate instructions. We made  recommendations at that time—3 of which are currently open.

Developing alternatives to animal use in testing

Federal agencies require researchers to consider alternatives to animal use. For example, instead of animals, researchers can use computer modeling to predict how humans will be affected by certain chemicals. Federal agencies have also collaborated to develop devices that could help reduce animal testing, such as the tissue chip pictured below, which contains features designed to replicate the complex biological functions of specific human organs.

Researchers and federal agencies are looking to promote alternatives to animal use for several reasons:

  • a desire and need to protect the animals
  • the potential to find more accurate information about human diseases or health than animal research can provide
  • the potential to lower costs and decrease the time needed to conduct research than possible with animal use

We identified 3 key agencies—Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, and the Environmental Protection Agency—that conduct or fund research that doesn’t use animals or uses fewer animals. For example, HHS provided funding to scientists to test chemicals for toxicity using human cell cultures rather than animals.

Some agencies also encourage industry to use alternatives when conducting product safety research. For example, the EPA issued a strategic plan to reduce animal testing for toxic chemicals and pesticides.

In addition, the 3 agencies collaborate and share best practices in animal use alternatives and have developed a roadmap to identify the progress they have individually or collectively made toward reducing, refining, or replacing animal use in testing. However, we found that the agencies have not routinely measured the effect of their efforts.

We recommended that HHS create a workgroup to help the agencies assess and report on their progress in reducing or replacing animal use in research. 

Want to know more? Check out the full 2018 report and our full 2019 report.

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