Celebrating Government's Greatest Endeavors

On Independence Day, which commemorates the history and accomplishments of the United States, it is appropriate to examine what the federal government has tried to achieve in the past fifty years. If a nation's greatness is measured in part by the kinds of problems it asks its government to solve, the United States measures up very well, indeed.

Government's 50 Greatest Endeavors of the Past Half Century, a project of the Brookings Institution, ranks the major undertakings of the government over the last 50 years, and how successful they were. Paul C. Light, vice president and director of Governmental Studies at Brookings, surveyed 450 history and political science professors and from their rankings compiled a list of the federal government's 50 greatest achievements of the last 50 years.

Although many Americans believe the federal government creates more problems than it solves, Government's 50 Greatest Endeavors of the Past Half Century suggests the government deserves credit for attempting to solve America's toughest challenges. Every significant domestic or foreign problem encountered in the past half century has been addressed by the federal government with some effort toward solution. Sometimes, the federal government has sought solutions through the creation of massive new programs such as Medicare and the Apollo Moon Mission. Other endeavors have involved a string of smaller initiatives to address enduring problems such as disease and poverty. The federal government did more than aim high, however. The federal government often succeeded in changing the nation and the world.

The top ten achievements according to Light's survey and analysis were:

  1. Rebuilding Europe After World War II. This is the oldest endeavor on the top ten list, and is anchored in the Marshall Plan. It is also the only endeavor on the top ten list that is no longer active.
  2. Expanding the Right to Vote. Ten statutes comprise this broad effort to protect and expand the right to vote. Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is the flagship on the list, it shares the endeavor with three extensions and two constitutional amendments, making it an endeavor of notable endurance.
  3. Promoting Equal Access to Public Accommodations. This three-statute endeavor originates in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, expands with the Open Housing Act of 1968, and is capped with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  4. Reducing Disease. The Polio Vaccination Act of 1955 is the starting point for the most eclectic group of statutes on the list. Alongside vaccination assistance, the effort to reduce disease also includes targeted research, bans on smoking, strengthening the National Institutes of Health, and lead-based poison prevention. The endeavor reflects a clear commitment to reducing disease.
  5. Reducing Workplace Discrimination. Seven statutes anchor this effort to prohibit workplace discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, national origin, age, or disability, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination Act of 1967, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
  6. Ensuring Safe Food and Drinking Water. Nine statutes comprise this long-running bipartisan effort.
  7. Strengthening the Nation's Highway System. Eight statutes underpin the ongoing federal effort to augment the national highway system, most notably the 1956 Interstate Highway Act.
  8. Increasing Older Americans' Access to Health Care. Medicare is the flagship of this highly concentrated, three-statute endeavor. This is the only endeavor on the top ten list that involved a single breakthrough program.
  9. Reducing the Federal Budget Deficit. Six statutes fall under the effort to balance the federal budget through caps, cuts, and tax increases. Launched in the mid 1980s as budget deficits swelled, this is the most recent endeavor on the top ten list.
  10. Promoting Financial Security in Retirement. Twenty-one statutes comprise the effort to reduce poverty among the elderly.

More details on the Government's 50 Greatest Endeavors project are provided in this policy brief.