Social policy is the expression of our government’s commitment to upholding the promise of equality of opportunity to every member of our society. The key test of the integrity of this commitment is the freedom of individuals who are subject to legacies of exclusion and oppression to be full participants in our society and economy.
Unfortunately, there is troubling evidence that our social policies are failing. Over 1.5 million U.S. households live on less than $2 per day. Income and wealth have concentrated at levels unseen since the Gilded Age. Indeed, the Equality of Opportunity Project led by economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Emmanuel Saez has documented how intergenerational mobility in America has declined sharply. Of most concern is the continued relevance of factors like race in predicting where someone will fall among these trends.
Over 1.5 million U.S. households live on less than $2 per day. Income and wealth have concentrated at levels unseen since the Gilded Age.
New America’s Family-Centered Social Policy initiative has investigated why this holds true despite the extensive number of programs and amount of resources devoted to achieving different results. Over the past two years, we have audited policies from financial security and education, to child care and workforce development, and we have consulted with stakeholders, including policymakers at the federal and municipal levels, community-based service organizations, and families on the receiving end of these interventions.
This work has led us to an unsettling conclusion: Social policy does not disrupt patterns of economic and social division; instead it replicates them. We have a separate and unequal set of social policies that exacerbate inequality instead of providing a countervailing force against the factors that cause it.
For example, families that are already advantaged by higher levels of education, labor security, and accumulated wealth are often the ones who also receive automatic benefits from their employers, such as paid parental leave and health insurance, and through tax, subsidies for purposes from homeownership to child care expenses. In contrast, families exposed to higher levels of volatility and risk without those advantages must navigate a complicated, unreliable patchwork of programs that offer inadequate assistance to surmount the more substantial barriers they face.
Rather than these disparate outcomes being seen as the predictable result of disparate policy choices, they are often portrayed as the product of poor personal choices and individual failures, affirming the false narrative that justified the policies in the first place. This stigmatizes not only the programs but also their participants.
Families that are already advantaged by higher levels of education, labor security, and accumulated wealth are often the ones who also receive automatic benefits from their employers...families exposed to higher levels of volatility and risk without those advantages must navigate a complicated, unreliable patchwork of programs that offer inadequate assistance to surmount the more substantial barriers they face.
In our view, the only way to disrupt this cycle and redeem the equality of opportunity ideal is to replace our current separate and unequal system with one that embeds the ideals of inclusion and equity directly into our policies—and into the processes that design them.
This new model applies the principles and methodology of human-centered design to social policy. That means originating policy design around the needs and wants of the families the policy is intended to serve and democratizing the process to include direct participation by the families. By centering policies around what will best serve the families who have been placed at the margins by the current policy approach, giving these families a meaningful voice in the design process, and evaluating the effectiveness of interventions according to their outcomes, this model marks a radical shift in the power dynamics of how policy is made and who it works for.
This paper offers a blueprint for putting this innovative proposal into practice.
First, we assert the essential role of social policy in creating a shared infrastructure of opportunity which enables the freedom to pursue a diversity of individual life paths. This view of social policy as the mechanism that allows every member of our society to develop their capabilities and express them in purposeful and meaningful ways has direct implications for how this infrastructure is constructed.
Second, we critique current policy. By evaluating the performance of the existing system against the human-centered vision, we diagnose the specific pathologies that are inherent to our current separate and unequal approach.
Third, we advance a new framework. We identify specific features that are necessary to build a shared infrastructure of opportunity and establish principles for policy design consistent with this vision. Importantly, we seek to revolutionize the policymaking process by recasting the role of “recipients” as “co-designers.” Introducing families as direct participants ensures that public policy is truly representing the interests of the public.
Finally, we map the road ahead.
Our new framework, which offers a positive alternative that honors and thrives on diversity, pushes back against assumptions and practices within social policy that amplify—rather than ameliorate—economic, social, and political disparities. Putting this new model into practice will bring us closer to seeing the same progress that is deeply needed in society as a whole.