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Noteworthy

A rare sight, a North American right whale mother and calf swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Right whales are critically endangered throughout their range.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Off New England, Once-Plentiful Whales Face Extinction

If you haven’t heard about North Atlantic right whales, it might be because their numbers are so small. Only about 400 remain, making these cetaceans one of the world’s most endangered large species. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

North Atlantic right whales live, feed, and mate off the East Coast of North America, migrating each fall from the Canadian Maritimes and New England to calve in waters off the Southeast U.S. In their home territory and along that journey, they face a gantlet of threats, chiefly entanglement in the ropes stringing lobster and crab traps to buoys, and strikes from ships along this heavily trafficked corridor.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) has been aware of these problems for years: A downward trend in the North Atlantic right whale population began in 2010, and 30 whales have died since 2017. Meanwhile, scientists have observed only 12 births since the 2017 calving season—less than one-third the previous average annual birth rate. These data led the agency to ramp up efforts to help the animals, including adjusting shipping routes, considering new regulations to protect them from entanglement in fishing gear, and working with the fishing industry on gear designs less likely to injure and kill whales.

A downward trend in the North Atlantic right whale population began in 2010, and 30 whales have died since 2017.

So far these efforts have fallen short. A study published in June by a team of whale biologists, veterinarians, and pathologists concluded, “If the present downward trend continues, the population could become functionally extinct within a few decades.”

In evaluating the cause of death for 70 right whales from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence between 2003 and 2018, the authors found that almost 90 percent of the cases in which the cause of death was determined were caused by preventable trauma—that is, entanglements and vessel strikes. Many of the injuries were severe: ropes wrapped around whales’ heads, mouths, baleen, flippers, and flukes, causing deep lacerations, bone deformities, partial or total amputations, starvation, and drowning. Injuries can also lead to poor feeding and swimming, and entanglements are blamed for lower reproduction rates as well.

More recently, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, the primary advisory body to NOAA Fisheries, proposed that lobster fishermen use fewer traps, and weaker rope, which may not be enough to stop lethal entanglements. Pew has advocated for a transition to ropeless gear, such as units retrievable via remote beacons, and for seasonal area closures in places of high risk to whales. The latest round of right whale deaths shows that NOAA needs to act quickly and decisively.

“I doubt that anyone, including New England fishermen, wants to see the North Atlantic right whale go extinct,” says Peter Baker, who leads Pew’s oceans work in the Northeast U.S. and Atlantic Canada. “We have a chance to save them, but we won’t have many more. To save these whales from extinction, NOAA must continue to work with fishermen and engineers to develop ropeless gear for use in areas where whales migrate. In the meantime, NOAA should implement seasonal fishery closures where right whales are most likely to become entangled in lobster gear.” 

—John Briley

Lexey Swall The Pew Charitable Trusts

Who’s Leaving Philadelphia?

Each year, roughly 60,000 residents leave Philadelphia. To find out what motivates these moves, Pew’s Philadelphia research initiative surveyed 1,000 people who had recently relocated—and found no single reason to be dominant. Instead, the survey found that reasons for leaving varied based on respondents’ age, income, ties to the area, education level, and whether the moves were to the Philly suburbs or to locations outside of the region completely.

The largest number left for job opportunities, either better positions elsewhere or an inability to find the right job in Philadelphia. Jobs were cited by 26 percent of those surveyed overall and 44 percent of people who had left the region. Employment was also the primary motivator for those with bachelor’s degrees or higher, as well as for those who moved to the area after childhood. Moves by those with roots in Philadelphia or a high school diploma or less were more often motivated by concerns about public safety and other quality-of-life issues.

Age played a role as well. Although employment was the main reason cited by those under age 50, job opportunities were much less of a factor for people ages 50 or over. Among this cohort, 27 percent cited public safety as their top concern, followed by the cost of living at 17 percent, and neighborhood change at 13 percent.

The survey also noted that people who have moved out of Philadelphia in the past several years differ in several ways from those who have remained. For starters, movers are younger than city residents as a whole—half of the movers are ages 18-34, a group that represents 30 percent of the city’s overall population. And although African-Americans are Philadelphia’s largest racial or ethnic group, the biggest contingent of movers has been non-Hispanic whites; they represented 45 percent of the outflow while African-Americans made up 30 percent, Hispanics 13 percent, and Asians 7 percent.

“Different demographic groups had varied explanations for leaving, but jobs were at or near the top of the list cited by blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians, and public safety was just as important as jobs for both blacks and Hispanics,” says Larry Eichel, who directs the research initiative. “It’s also worth noting that most survey respondents didn’t characterize themselves as fleeing the city. In fact, 70 percent rated Philadelphia a good or excellent place to live.”

—Demetra Aposporos

Banter Snaps Unsplash

Student Loan Borrowers Need More Support

More than 43 million Americans have student loans through federal government programs, the largest section of the education loan market, and over the past decade the total debt from those loans has skyrocketed from about $650 billion to approximately $1.4 trillion.

This college debt can become an unwieldy burden for many: According to a report from Pew released in November, within five years of beginning to pay back their loans, about a quarter of the borrowers in the study defaulted, defined as making no payment for 270 days in a row.

In addition, 21 percent of borrowers owed more than their original balances after paying on loans for five years. This outcome is, at least in part, a result of having missed or stopped payments at times, periods during which interest continues to accrue and drive up the overall debt. Only 22 percent of borrowers had never missed or paused payments.

The report provides a broad overview of the pathways that borrowers take through repayment and where they struggle during the loan repayment process over a five-year period.

It highlighted that borrowers who owe the least, often less than $10,000, default at higher rates. Existing data suggest that many began—but didn’t finish—college, and so may not be able to access the higher-paying jobs that often come with a degree. Furthermore, students of color, first-generation students, and those who attend for-profit colleges are also at greater risk of defaulting.

“It’s critical to identify at-risk borrowers before they are in distress—in particular, by looking at indicators such as missing payments early on, repeatedly suspending payments, and previous defaults,” says Sarah Sattelmeyer, who directs Pew’s research on student debt repayment. 

Borrowers who fail to repay student loans can face serious financial consequences. They may get charged collection fees, have their wages garnished, or have money withheld from income tax refunds or other federal payments, such as Social Security. Failure to repay loans could also damage credit scores, and make borrowers ineligible for other aid programs. 

The report recommends that Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, which holds a majority of student loans, take steps to increase repayment success with a focus on three points: Identify struggling borrowers early before they are in distress, guide loan servicers on how to help these borrowers, and eliminate barriers to enrollment in affordable repayment plans.

In December, an important bipartisan step forward in relieving one obstacle for borrowers came when President Donald Trump signed a new law that requires data sharing between the Internal Revenue Service and the education department. The move will help borrowers who are in repayment plans based on their family size and incomes by steamlining duplicative income verification requirements they must make each year.

“The typical borrower is not someone who puts their payment on autopay and forgets about it. Many go back to school, miss payments, experience financial distress, and struggle with an overly complex repayment system,” says Sattelmeyer. “If we can identify struggling borrowers early, we can engage sooner, providing them resources when and where they need them.”

—Carol Kaufmann

Karrastock Getty Images

Americans Wary of News on Social Media Sites 

As heated debate continues over how social media sites can improve the quality of news on their platforms while enforcing rules fairly, most Americans are pessimistic about these efforts and highly concerned about several issues when it comes to social media
and news.

Majorities say that social media companies have too much control over the news on their sites, and that the role social media companies play in delivering news results in a worse mix of news for users. At the same time, social media is now a part of the news diet of an increasingly large share of the U.S. population.

These findings are based on a survey conducted July 8-21, 2019, among 5,107 U.S. adults who are members of the Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel. The study also examined Americans’ perceptions of the biggest problems when it comes to social media and news, the political slant of news posts they see on social media, and which sites they go to for news.

“Almost all Americans—about  9 in 10, or 88 percent—recognize that social media companies have at least some control over the mix of news people see,” says Elisa Shearer, lead author of the survey. And most Americans feel this is a problem: About 6 in 10 (62 percent) say social media companies have too much control over the mix of news people see on their sites, roughly four times as many as say that they don’t have enough control (15 percent). Just 21 percent say that social media companies have the right amount of control over the news people see.

The largest social media platforms control the content on their feeds using computer algorithms that rank and prioritize posts and other content tailored to the interests of each user. These sites allow users to customize these settings, although previous research has found that many Americans feel uncertain about why certain posts appear in their news feed on Facebook specifically. Social media companies have also been public about their efforts to fight both false information and fake accounts on their sites.

Although social media companies say these efforts are meant to make the news experience on their sites better for everyone, most Americans think they just make things worse. A majority (55 percent) say that the role social media companies play in delivering the news on their sites results in a worse mix of news. Only a small share (15 percent) say it results in a better mix of news, while about 3 in 10 (28 percent) think these efforts make no real difference.

—Demetra Aposporos

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