Congress passes thousands of laws every year, many of which escape the notice of the average American. Of these, a few genuinely improve lives, and the programs they create are held dear by the public. Two examples are Medicare and Social Security, which form the core of our social safety net. A handful of other legislative acts during the 20th century have so strengthened the country that they literally transformed it, with their benefits visible to everyone. While no piece of legislation is perfect, these legislative accomplishments illustrate the power of thoughtful governmental action to address national problems and produce visible, enduring results. Here are seven laws that did just that.
1. Works Progress Administration
The WPA was a New Deal infrastructure project designed to provide employment to those hardest hit by the Depression until the economy improved. Millions of Americans were employed to build hundreds of thousands of roads, schools, bridges, airports, and parks. Among its most notable accomplishments are the Lincoln Tunnel, LaGuardia Airport, and the Griffith Observatory. The WPA went beyond infrastructure, however. It also provided significant aid to the arts, employing figures such as Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, and John Steinbeck. Critics charged the WPA as being filled with waste and fraud, but that is partly a reflection of how prolific it was. At its height, the W.P.A. employed 20% of the nation’s work force, and indirectly touched the lives of millions more.
2. The G.I. Bill Of Rights
Passed by Congress in 1944, and expanded numerous times since, the G.I. Bill gave rise to the modern middle class and changed the way the country treated its veterans. Haunted by the Bonus Army fiasco, Congress enacted a strong package of measures to ensure that American G.I.s smoothly reintegrated into civilian life. The most prominent component was aid for college tuition. By 1947, veterans made up nearly half of the nation’s university students, and college graduation rates soared. The G.I.s also took advantage of the bill’s generous low-interest mortgage provisions, sparking the explosive growth of home-ownership and with it the suburban middle class.
3. The Highway Act Of 1956
The Highway Act was originally proposed by the Eisenhower Administration to facilitate the swift travel of military convoys across the country in case the Cold War turned hot. Thankfully, this turned out to be unnecessary, but millions of Americans have benefited from the increase in personal mobility and the efficiency of interstate commerce. It fostered the growth of new roadside businesses such as fast-food restaurants, motels, and amusement parks. The main legacies of the act, however, were to further promote the development of the suburbs and to ignite America’s long love affair with the automobile.
4. The Civil Rights Act Of 1964
Rammed through Congress by President Johnson, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is one of the most historic pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. It prohibited private sector discrimination based on not only race, but gender as well, providing a boost to the women’s rights movement. The genius of the Act is that it was written to be easily adaptable to changing times, and now covers a wide variety of discrimination, most recently sexual orientation. The Civil Rights Act profoundly changed this country’s moral calculus by placing the full might of the federal government firmly on the side of the underdog.
5. The Immigration Act Of 1965
No other act has so radically affected the demographic makeup of the U.S. as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It abolished the quotas that had favored Europeans and practically excluded everyone else, creating a “first come, first serve” immigration system. Along with the demographic changes, this has enabled human capital to be allocated much more fluidly, and has been a boon to this country’s computer science industry, among other technical fields. Because of the Immigration Act of 1965, the U.S. is truly a land of immigrants and has benefited from the drive and talent that they bring.
6. The Clean Air Act Of 1970
The Clean Air Act placed the newly created Environmental Protection Agency in charge of monitoring and improving the nation’s air. It authorized the development of clean air standards to limit the emissions from industrial and automotive sources. The 1990 amendment further strengthened the act, expanding enforcement provisions and targeting acid rain, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons. It also tightened automotive emissions standards. While vehicle use since its passage has increased almost 200%, levels of the six most common air pollutants have been cut in half. In addition, air toxins from large industrial sources have been reduced by 70%.
7. The Clean Water Act Of 1972
In 1969, the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught fire. That was not the only river fire in the nation’s history, but it helped to focus national attention on the contamination of the environment that was captured in the iconic “Crying Indian” commercial. In response to public pressure, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to address the industrial sources of pollution destroying the nation’s water supply. The act targeted pollution sources like sewage leaks, industrial discharges, and oil spills. Before its passage, two-thirds of all waterways were so polluted that they were unsafe for human contact. Today, those numbers have reversed themselves. And while the law may not be perfect, river fires in America are thankfully a thing of the past.
It’s fashionable these days to disparage “big government” as burdensome, ineffective, or worse. But in an age of joyless austerity, where government is seen by some as the enemy, it is important to remind ourselves of those instances in which big, thoughtful legislation has made tangible, lasting improvements in the average American life, improvements that the free market could not or would not do. These seven laws did exactly that.