The Power of Policy

December 17, 2014

Public policy is a principled guide to action, designed to lead to the greater good. As we celebrate our centennial as America’s first graduate-level training program in public administration, we take a moment to reflect on the powerful role policy has played in society.

Decisions made today may not bear fruit for a decade or a generation, but with investments of time, resources, and resolve, today’s public policy students and alumni—agents of change carrying a flame into a future we cannot yet picture—will usher in new solutions.

Caring for Children's Health

In 1997, when the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was enacted with bipartisan support during President Clinton’s second term, one in every four low-income children went without health insurance—severely limiting their access to immunizations, preventive care, medical treatment, hospital services, lab work, x-rays, and more. According to a recent evaluation of the CHIP program by Mathematica, the percentage of low-income children without access to health insurance had fallen to 13 percent by 2012 and children enrolled in CHIP “had better access to care, fewer unmet needs, and greater financial protection than uninsured children.”

Suggested by Dr. Matthew Davis

Stemming Inflation

Years ago, it wasn’t unusual for countries around the world to suffer terrible inflation—with the price of food and fuel doubling annually or worse. That kind of inflation takes its toll in ways we can’t always measure—on economic growth and development, on inequality, on national stability, and more. Many think that in the 1930s high inflation was a key factor in the collapse of democracy in Weimar Germany. Increased independence of central banks from political pressures, with an improved understanding of how to keep inflation in check through monetary policy, now protect hundreds of millions of people from the debilitating effects of high inflation.

Suggested by Susan M. Collins

Improving International Relations

In 1947, when George C. Marshall called on the U.S. to assist with the post-war reconstruction of Europe, he argued that without the return of normal economic health in the nations devastated by WWII, there could be “no political stability and no assured peace.” Not only did the Marshall Plan help to ease the suffering of Europeans and reboot the European economy, it legitimized the concept of U.S. foreign aid programs, which have dramatically improved America’s relationships with the international community.

Suggested by Bob Axelrod

Clearing the Smoke

In 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General’s office released the first report on the health consequences of smoking, 42 percent of American adults smoked. In the years that followed, numerous reports, policies, court cases, and acts would follow. Warning labels were added to cigarettes in 1966, public service announcements advertised smoking’s health risks in 1967, cigarette ads were banned from TV and radio in 1970, the Surgeon General reported on the health risks of secondhand smoke in 1972. The list goes on. Today, half of U.S. states have adopted comprehensive smoke-free laws, and the number of American adults who smoke has fallen to 18 percent.

Suggested by Paul Courant

Tackling Elderly Poverty

In 1959, five years before Lyndon Johnson delivered his Great Society speech at the University of Michigan and launched his ambitious War on Poverty, more than onethird of those aged sixty-five or older lived in poverty. New policies like the introduction of Medicare, the expansion of Social Security benefits, and the establishment of the Supplemental Security Income program have done much to reduce poverty among the elderly. By 2010, the poverty rate among the elderly had fallen to just 9 percent.

Suggested by Sheldon Danziger

Protecting refugees

For centuries, war, famine, and persecution have driven populations from their homes in search of security. In 1943, President Roosevelt had a bold idea: to create a specialized international agency to provide relief to populations suffering or displaced during the Second World War. His idea took shape months later in the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which paved the way to the creation of the UN Refugee Agency six years later. Since then, the UN Refugee Agency has provided relief to tens of millions of refugees, including many of the estimated 11 million refugees in the world today.

Suggested by John Ciorciari

Protecting human rights

In the two decades following World War II, United Nations member states negotiated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and two covenants that together form the bedrock of today’s international human rights law. While it is not difficult to find examples of their flagrant disregard, in more ordinary ways these standards have influenced domestic laws virtually everywhere in the world, leading to vast improvements in the welfare of workers, the status of women, the civil rights of ethnic minorities, and the protection of children. They have also provided a framework for investigating abuses and in 1998 paved the way for the establishment of an International Criminal Court.

Suggested by Susan Waltz

Ending segregation

In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson held that racially segregated public institutions were acceptable, so long as accommodations were equal. But racial minorities never received the equal treatment Plessy promised. Racially segregated public schools, in particular, instigated severe educational and psychological damage for African-American students. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education and subsequent litigation recognized the impossibility of “separate but equal,” putting an end to racial segregation. Sixty years later, the struggle for equity in public education remains, but Brown v. Board helped to narrow the gap.

Suggested by Brian Jacob

Targeting educational disparities

In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education explicitly ended racial segregation in public schools while implicitly directing schools to work toward building the educational equity that racial segregation prevented. While the Supreme Court was unable to give specific instructions on how to narrow educational disparities, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) sought to do so by providing federal funding for low-income students and schools and beginning to monitor student outcomes to assess whether the money was being well spent. The federal government has reauthorized ESEA every five years since its 1965 enactment, and it exists in its current iteration as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Suggested by Brian Jacob

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2014 State & Hill here.