California Governor Gavin Newsom has just signed a three-month extension of the state’s moratorium on COVID-19 deportations, which now runs until September 30. But, are these eviction bans necessary to protect public health during the pandemic?
Two studies which have gained media attention and which have been cited by politicians and government officials in support of deportation moratoria claim to show that the moratoria saved thousands of lives.
“Researchers estimated that lifting the moratoriums could have resulted in between 365,200 and 502,200 excess cases of coronavirus and between 8,900 and 12,500 excess deaths,” National Public Radio noted, in an interview with postdoctoral researcher Kathryn Leifheit from the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.
Leifheit was the lead author of âExpiring Eviction Moratoriums and COVID-19 Incidence and Mortality,â a study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its order extending the federal moratorium on evictions.
The second study, written by a team of researchers at Duke University, claims nationwide moratoriums on evictions have reduced deaths from COVID-19 by 40%. It gained media attention and was cited twice by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the Federal Register to justify its rule making.
These studies are deeply flawed.
Their underlying data is incomplete and inconsistent. Their results are implausible. The magnitude of the effect is extremely disproportionate to other public health interventions. The researchers also claim an absurd amount of certainty in their results despite the large uncertainties in the data they use, and they claim a causal effect based solely on correlation.
If the authors were right, they would make one of the greatest public health discoveries in history.
Consider that it took over a year and possibly $ 100 billion to develop and administer the COVID-19 vaccines, which researchers say will reduce COVID-19-related infections and deaths by an amount similar to what both studies claim can be accomplished immediately with simple legal changes on deportation moratoriums.
Researchers struggled to demonstrate the benefits of masks, social distancing, and lockdowns from aggregated population data (evidence for the effectiveness of vaccinations and other measures comes from controlled studies on samples. , not correlations at the population level). Yet these researchers on the moratorium on evictions find great confidence in a gigantic immediate effect of a legal change affecting a small subset of the population, using only observational data at the population level.
The authors of the Duke study even declined to share their dataset or answer questions about apparent inconsistencies, on the grounds that the study was not peer reviewed. This is a violation of basic research ethics in the case of a study that the authors and Duke University widely promoted in the media and with government agencies to justify federal policies.
Doing our best to replicate what we think the authors of Duke did, we find no significant relationship showing that moratoriums have reduced COVID-19, let alone anything of the size and certainty that claims the authors. Although they say all of their data comes from public sources – they decline to say which ones – many of their data entries are not available at the county level (which they need), nor for the period covered by the study. .
The available data are associated with a great deal of uncertainty, far greater than the uncertainty cited by the authors for their conclusions. The authors declined to explain how they can use input data with 30 to 100 percent errors to draw conclusions to three decimal places and claimed an uncertainty of less than 10 percent.
The UCLA study, on the other hand, is a transparent scientific reporting template, with all data and methodologies leaked, though the lead author also declined to answer our questions about the inconsistencies.
These two flawed studies have strongly influenced federal and state public policies on deportation moratoria. They justified a series of temporary measures that impacted the livelihoods of landlords across the country by denying them legal recourse to enforce their contracts and reducing the supply of rental housing to financially struggling households.
As we are going to involve scientific researchers in policy discussions, we should focus on issues that have been explored by many people who openly share data and argue until there is consensus among the experts. These shoddy one-off studies are just ammunition for people who wish to put a link saying “studies prove” in their otherwise completely speculative articles.
Aaron Brown teaches statistics at New York University and the University of California at San Diego. Justin Monticello is a senior producer at ReasonTV.