Addressing America's Crisis of Despair and Economic Recovery

A Call for a Coordinated Effort

Published in: Report of the Brookings Working Group on Despair and Economic Recovery (July 2021)

Posted on on August 04, 2021

by Carol Graham, John R. Allen, Rimal Bera, Anita Chandra, Jan-Emmanuel de Neve, Theo Edmonds, Harris A. Eyre, Nancy Hey, Fiona Hill, Andy Keller, et al.

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This policy paper proposes a new federal interagency task force to address our nation's crisis of despair as a critical first step to sustainable economic recovery.

Despair in American society is a barrier to reviving our labor markets and productivity, jeopardizing our well-being, health, longevity, families, and communities—and even our national security. The COVID-19 pandemic was a fundamental shock, exacerbating an already a growing problem of despair.

This despair in part results from the decline of the white working class. It contributes to our decreasing geographic mobility and has political spillovers, such as the recent increase in far-right radicalization. At the same time, other population groups are also suffering, for different reasons. Over past few years, for instance, suicides increased among minority youth and overdoses increased among Black urban males (starting from a lower level than whites but now exceeding it).

Policy responses have been fragmented, with much focus on interdiction or ex-post treatment rather than on the root causes of despair. There are local efforts to boost the well-being of vulnerable cohorts, but most are isolated silos. There is no federal level entity to provide the vulnerable with financial or logistical support, nor is there a system that can disseminate relevant information to other communities seeking solutions. While federal agencies—such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—track mortality trends, no system tracks the underlying causes of these deaths. In contrast, many countries, such as the U.K. and New Zealand, track trends in well-being and ill-being as part of their routine national statistics collection and have key leadership positions focused exclusively on these issues.

This policy paper proposes a new federal interagency task force to address our nation's crisis of despair as a critical first step to sustainable economic recovery. The task force would both monitor trends and coordinate federal and local efforts in this arena. We identify five key areas the task force could monitor and help coordinate: data collection; changing the public narrative; addressing community-wide despair as part of the future of work; private-public sector partnerships; and despair as a national security issue.

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