Federal Task Force Needed To Attack Roots of Public Despair

Social Justice Policy Brief # 22 | By: Katelyn Lewis | August 16, 2021

Header photo taken from: Brookings Institution




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Policy Summary

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has become a stellar example of how ill-fitted U.S. policy is toward addressing the root causes of despair in society, a Brookings Institution policy analysis suggests, with most policies providing reactive solutions and further impairing economic recovery.

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

The report proposes the development of a federal interagency task force, commissioned to coordinate existing and new addiction, despair, and economic recovery efforts “as a critical first step to sustainable economic recovery.”

The task force would also oversee the addition of national well-being statistics to existing annual data on illness; reframe the narrative around mental health to include the positive impacts of well-being on economic growth; and work to connect and expand mental health treatment with hope-building community revival and resilience efforts. Further, the report suggests the task force help to coordinate public–private partnerships focused on creatively improving worker well-being, and to treat despair as a national security issue – especially in its exponential spread through online and physical organizing.

“Without a dedicated and coordinated effort, the large cohort of workers that have simply dropped out of the labor force and have lost hope of having a purposeful existence – among others – will continue to suffer and remain a barrier to a full social and economic recovery,” the analysis says. “This in turn will make it more likely that their children will become the next generation in despair.”


Photo taken from: Brookings Institution

The root causes of despair include, but are not limited to, unemployment, poverty, cultural dislocation, rising health care costs, and feeling of hopelessness. They may present themselves in suicides, addictions, overdoses, and increased mental health issues ranging from depression and anxiety to increased anger and frustrations.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only became a leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2020, but it also has led to increases in long-term unemployment and social isolation – both of which initiate and exacerbate poor mental health on the individual and community level.

And, while some policies and programs aim to address these issues, they are few and far between, with no master plan in place to connect the dots, according to the analysis.

“There is no federal level entity to provide financial or logistical support to these bottom-up efforts, nor is there a system that can disseminate relevant information to other communities seeking solutions,” the report says. “While federal agencies – such as the CDC – track mortality trends, no system tracks the underlying causes of these deaths, especially their psychosocial correlates.”

Policy Analysis

The Brookings Institution proposal is thorough in both outlining the depth of and providing solutions for documenting and addressing societal despair in the U.S., but leaves the logistics of setting the interagency up to the higher leadership powers that be.

It envisions an interagency task force connecting with others already in existence, so as not to create another “siloed activity.” The task force would take into account existing, working concepts from community-led efforts and devise paths forward for scaling them to others nationally. It models the interagency National Climate Task Force, using an executive order to bring  much-needed attention, resources, and support to tackling the systemic roots of despair.

Task force report photo

Photo taken from: Brookings Institution

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Photo taken from: Brookings Institution

But left out of the equation are some of the finer details – for example, the process for selecting and scaling initiatives operating “in disconnected siloes which do not lead to generalizable or scalable operations”; the potential costs or funding required to launch it uniformly; or how to remove the political bias that often comes with the issuing of an executive order, even if the problems it addresses are universal.

The paper suggests some of these answers are beyond its purview, but without them, it’s possible this report joins others in setting idealistic goals, but not being taken seriously or noticed by policymakers. In fact, no media outlets have covered the report since its release in July 2021.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

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Brookings Working Group on Despair and Economic Recovery – Addressing America’s crisis of despair and economic recovery (July 2021) –


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Community Initiatives – 


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Smart Growth America:


Trust for America’s Health


Well Being Trust: 


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