Flawed Structures; Unjust Outcomes:  Our Public Institutions Can and Must Do Better

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Much has been written in these pages and elsewhere about the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Akai Gurley as reflections of our legal system.  Please note that I use the term “legal system” intentionally, instead of “justice system.”  Because as we know all too well, the structures set up to implement our laws often fall short of producing real justice.

Flawed structures lead to unjust outcomes.  This becomes clear when we view the well-publicized failure of grand juries to indict police whose actions led to utterly preventable deaths – a result of a legal system that made these outcomes possible, if not probable. But it is also painfully obvious when we look at many other public institutions that are supposed to benefit all of our citizens, but actually leave great swaths out in the cold.   So when some say that these recent cases underscore how our public institutions have failed us, I must disagree.  They have produced the outcomes one would expect from their design. 

Systemic problems require systemic solutions

For 20 years under the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations, our systems of public benefits, housing and work supports for individuals in economic crisis were effectively used to penalize those same individuals, instead of providing them with a platform to get back on their feet.  As a result, our most recent former mayor left us with a homeless population of over 50,000, and  a welfare-to-work system that got almost no one back to work, much less on a path to a career.

Our current mayor has made some real progress on this front. Under Mayor de Blasio and Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steve Banks, the city has already begun a much-needed revamping of the welfare system so that it emphasizes education and skill-building necessary for effective transition to work and real self-sufficiency. Recognizing the obvious nexus between poverty and lack of employment, the mayor’s office recently announced the results a months-long Jobs for New York Task Force (on which I served), that will be overhauling New York City’s workforce development system with an emphasis on connecting low-income job seekers to skill-building opportunities and good jobs. Undergirding this effort is a new model called “Career Pathways,” which provides entry points into the city’s employment and job-training infrastructure for anyone, regardless of their skill level. Not only does the program allow job seekers to get the training they need to secure a decent job, but it also supports their long-range employment goals by connecting them to programs and industries that will help them launch a real career.

Other areas are currently faring less well, however. Last week at a City Council hearing on public school diversity, some individuals testified that the reason for the paltry numbers (in the single digits) of black and Latino students at specialized public high schools is due to those students not working hard enough in middle school.  But admissions to those schools are determined by a test that is not connected to the middle school curricula or part of the already exhaustive current testing regime.  Using this unvalidated test as the sole key to admission creates a clear advantage for those families who have the resources and wherewithal to provide their children with costly extracurricular test prep.  And, unfortunately but not surprisingly, our broader system of school choice has been condemned by leading academics as causing New York City to become “the epicenter of school segregation.”  Ideas of justice or fairness are clearly not hardwired into its current structure.

There are similar problems at the MTA. Fares are slated to go up four percent next year, which will disproportionately impact poor people, further separating them from the ability to actually get to jobs and opportunities to rejoin the economic mainstream. While better-off New Yorkers can absorb an increase and take advantage of savings that come from buying an unlimited monthly pass for $112, those  struggling to make ends meet can’t lay out that much and their dollars end up subsidizing benefits for those who need them less. According to our latest Unheard Third survey, 31 percent of the working poor and a quarter of workers in households with incomes below twice the federal poverty level, frequently cannot afford to buy a MetroCard.  This is another system with inequality hardwired into its design. 

When we look at specific cases of injustice, we should think of them in the context of requiring broad solutions to entrenched social, political and economic inadequacies. Yes, we need to see that the individual perpetrators of violence and unjustified deadly force are brought to justice. At the same time, we need to ensure that wide range of factors that caused each one of these situations, and their outcomes, are examined appropriately. We cannot forget that Akai Gurley had to climb the pitch-dark NYCHA stairwell due to a failed elevator, a maintenance problem all too common in public housing, as my organization has documented.

Specific injustices have gotten us marching. The question now is whether we can use this energy to move our public institutions toward greater equity, fairness and the change we really need.

Issues Covered

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