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Social justice?

November 11, 2008

A major complaint that many people have had concerning the past eight years of the Bush administration is that it has had no interest in addressing issues of social justice in the United States. What are these issues? And what steps would a genuinely responsible government take to address them?

Here are a few core social justice issues that have become increasingly visible in the past eight years. Can we hope they will do better under the Obama administration?

  • Income inequality that has risen steeply since 1980
  • Disregard of the most basic human needs of poor people — e.g. the indifferent Katrina relief response
  • Serious race gaps in quality of life and economic opportunity that have held steady or worsened
  • A worsening healthcare crisis affecting 47 million uninsured people
  • A financial and economic meltdown that differentially hurts low and middle income people
  • Poor quality schools in high poverty areas
  • Deteriorating conditions in many American cities
  • Homelessness and hunger rising
  • Environmental harms that are disproportionately found in urban poor populations
  • Tax reforms that greatly privilege the most affluent
  • Mistreatment of immigrant communities

What these issues have in common is the fact of inequality across large social groups, and a profound lack of a fair level of priority offered by government to address the issue. The inequality part of the picture has to do with gross inequalities in resources, opportunities, dignity, and outcomes for different groups. And the priority issue has to do with “voice” — the degree to which claims by disadvantaged groups are taken seriously by policy makers. The rich and powerful have not had difficulty in gaining the ear of the Bush administration. But poor and middle-class people have knocked in vain.

Most generally, what might an Obama administration do to improve the situation of social justice in the United States? A first step — and it is an important one — is to give the signal to all parts of government that social justice is an important priority for this administration. This priority needs to affirm the centrality of equality, fairness, and a concern for improving the condition of the least-well-off in society. It is understood that every problem cannot be addressed at the same time, and that there are other important priorities as well. But social justice is generally compatible with other priorities, and it will be an important step forward to simply know that the government is concerned with these issues.

A related step that will further the cause of social justice will be to give voice to the disadvantaged within the process of policy formation. If poverty alleviation is to be back on the agenda, then make sure that the voices of poor people are heard as policies are formulated and discussed. And make sure that leaders are selected who have a genuine and innovative commitment to change. (A conference on poverty being sponsored in Michigan by the Department of Human Services (link) is a good example of a process that involves the voices of affected people in a meaningful way. One can hope that committed experts such as Rebecca Blank or Douglas Massey will be involved in the policy leadership group of the next administration.)

Beyond these general steps — laying the groundwork for meaningful social justice reform — one would hope the administration will take on a few key issues to be addressed first. And perhaps these should be —

  • Healthcare reform to assure that all Americans have access to adequate healthcare through insurance and government programs
  • a focused urban strategy for addressing the issues of poverty and limited opportunities in our nation’s cities
  • implementation of a tax system that removes provisions favoring the most affluent individuals and corporations

This isn’t the whole of a social justice agenda, but it would be a very good start. And progress on these issues would also result in progress on other issues as well, including the gaps in opportunity and quality of life experienced by disadvantaged groups today.

It seems almost self evident that a more just society is a stronger and more unified society. So a government that consistently works towards improving social justice will build a much stronger foundation for America’s future in the coming half century.

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