What Is Public Policy?

PUBLIC POLICY AS OUTCOMES

Governments rarely want to keep their policies a secret. Elected officials want to be able to take credit for the things they have done to help their constituents, and their opponents are all too willing to cast blame when policy initiatives fail. We can therefore think of policy as the formal expression of what elected or appointed officials are trying to accomplish. In passing the HCERA (2010), Congress declared its policy through an act that directed how it would appropriate money. The president can also implement or change policy through an executive order, which offers instructions about how to implement law under his or her discretion (Figure). Finally, policy changes can come as a result of court actions or opinions, such as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which formally ended school segregation in the United States.Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

An image of a group of 12 people standing around Barack Obama, who is seated at a desk and signing a piece of paper.
President Obama signs a 2009 executive order to accelerate the federal government’s recruitment and hiring of returning veterans. Executive orders are an expression of public policy undertaken at the discretion of the president.

Typically, elected and even high-ranking appointed officials lack either the specific expertise or tools needed to successfully create and implement public policy on their own. They turn instead to the vast government bureaucracy to provide policy guidance. For example, when Congress passed the Clean Water Act (1972), it dictated that steps should be taken to improve water quality throughout the country. But it ultimately left it to the bureaucracy to figure out exactly how ‘clean’ water needed to be. In doing so, Congress provided the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with discretion to determine how much pollution is allowed in U.S. waterways.

There is one more way of thinking about policy outcomes: in terms of winners and losers. Almost by definition, public policy promotes certain types of behavior while punishing others. So, the individuals or corporations that a policy favors are most likely to benefit, or win, whereas those the policy ignores or punishes are likely to lose. Even the best-intended policies can have unintended consequences and may even ultimately harm someone, if only those who must pay for the policy through higher taxes. A policy designed to encourage students to go to liberal arts colleges may cause trade school enrollment to decline. Strategies to promote diversity in higher education may make it more difficult for qualified white or male applicants to get accepted into competitive programs. Efforts to clean up drinking water supplies may make companies less competitive and cost employees their livelihood. Even something that seems to help everyone, such as promoting charitable giving through tax incentives, runs the risk of lowering tax revenues from the rich (who contribute a greater share of their income to charity) and shifting tax burdens to the poor (who must spend a higher share of their income to achieve a desired standard of living). And while policy pronouncements and bureaucratic actions are certainly meant to rationalize policy, it is whether a given policy helps or hurts constituents (or is perceived to do so) that ultimately determines how voters will react toward the government in future elections.

The Social Safety Net

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States created a set of policies and programs that constituted a social safety net for the millions who had lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings (Figure). Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the federal government began programs like the Work Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps to combat unemployment and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to refinance Depression-related mortgage debts. As the effects of the Depression eased, the government phased out many of these programs. Other programs, like Social Security or the minimum wage, remain an important part of the way the government takes care of the vulnerable members of its population. The federal government has also added further social support programs, like Medicaid, Medicare, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, to ensure a baseline or minimal standard of living for all, even in the direst of times.

An image of people standing in long lines.
In 1937, during the Great Depression, families in Calipatria, California, waited in line for relief checks, part of the federal government’s newly introduced social safety net. (credit: modification of work by the Library of Congress)

In recent decades, however, some have criticized these safety net programs for inefficiency and for incentivizing welfare dependence. They deride “government leeches” who use food stamps to buy lobster or other seemingly inappropriate items. Critics deeply resent the use of taxpayer money to relieve social problems like unemployment and poverty; workers who may themselves be struggling to put food on the table or pay the mortgage feel their hard-earned money should not support other families. “If I can get by without government support,” the reasoning goes, “those welfare families can do the same. Their poverty is not my problem.”

So where should the government draw the line? While there have been some instances of welfare fraud, the welfare reforms of the 1990s have made long-term dependence on the federal government less likely as the welfare safety net was pushed to the states. And with the income gap between the richest and the poorest at its highest level in history, this topic is likely to continue to receive much discussion in the coming years.

Where is the middle ground in the public policy argument over the social safety net? How can the government protect its most vulnerable citizens without placing an undue burden on others?

Link to learning graphic

Explore historical data on United States budgets and spending from 1940 to the present from the Office of Management and Budget.