As President Biden continues to appoint people to serve in his government, I want to add something to the conversation.
I want a new government agency, a place to address what might be considered the small injustices that go on every day, that go unnoticed and unreported. I call it a “Department of Injustice”, or better, the “Department Against Injustice.” To start, it could be a council or committee on the White House staff, with its own director or “czar.” That way this idea can be tested to see if it works, without needing any action from Congress to create a new department.
This wouldn’t be the place to address systemic racism, immigration, health disparities, or other major issues on the policy agenda. For example, the country and the world were well aware of the Trump Administration’s practice of separating children from their parents as they came across the border from Mexico. This is something that the Biden Administration has known to address, and it has ended the practice (though it still confronts significant challenges at the US southern border).
The Department Against Injustice would tackle the smaller, largely invisible, everyday occurrences, similar to how Congressional offices offer constituent services, with an eye toward remedying the wrongs that people face and perhaps revising policies to ensure that the same injustices don’t continue.
How many of us know about any of the many routine, small injustices our government commits or allows to happen every day, that all fly under the radar? Maybe some of these can be remedied.
Several years ago a woman in Texas lost her housing assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid because she was lucky enough to win a car in an online contest. The car’s value exceeded the limit on assets she could have and still be eligible for federal aid.
Thousands of people in New York City who are homeless stay in that circumstance even though they have federal housing vouchers to pay the rent because landlords require that tenants maintain an annual income above a particular level.
A couple had their six-week old child taken away when a doctor saw marks on the baby’s stomach and determined they were the result of child abuse. The couple spent months fighting this. Subsequent analysis found that the marks were likely to have been caused by the straps on the family’s baby swing.
And that’s only the beginning. There are many more examples of this (a quick search on the internet will yield numerous cases like these). These are the injustices that we pay little attention to as a country, and which our political leaders often don’t know about and don’t have the bandwidth to learn about, even if they do care about them. It can be unclear if these injustices occur because government agencies and employees are understaffed, or if agencies tasked to pay attention to these issues end up following the laws, often to their logical consequences, but sometimes to their illogical, frustrating, unjust outcomes, that were never intended to harm people, but they do.
I want a new agency to address these problems. A department that takes all complaints, requests, pleas, and anger at the injustice we see around us every day. That seeks out the gaps in policy, the loopholes, the unintended (and even intended) consequences of government actions, laws, regulations and standard operating procedures. Some matters may not involve federal laws or agencies (such as the case of the couple having their child taken away), so a system of triage could connect people with the responsible state or local authorities or legislative representatives. Those that do involve federal law and agencies might then help lead to better policies, more just policies that help instead of doing harm.
Everyone should get a response, everyone should get the respect, attention and help that they deserve. Not everyone can or will get what they want. But nobody would get ignored. Nobody would get the frustration and helplessness of having nowhere to turn. And people would get a chance to avoid the sometimes interminable delays that ultimately deny justice.
Injustice not only needs a spotlight, an article in the newspaper, a story that goes viral. It needs a place to seek out remedies, to have someone with authority and political power who pays attention and wants to help make things better and get things right, a place to turn injustice into justice.
The examples provided above and others like it may be difficult to address. They may present thorny issues, hard tradeoffs, legal conundrums, and weak alternatives. But that’s no reason to avoid them.
This idea may sound like a familiar refrain, something along the lines of “I have a dream…” and not like a real policy proposal. So be it. A dream, as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, can be a great place to start.
I may not know how to implement this, but others do, so I know what I want: I want a new government agency.
David Bernell is an associate professor of political science in the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.