Policy is Not Enough

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment


David Brooks is making me think again.  This time he is pointing to the limits of policy.  Yes, he’s throwing stones at what is a sacred cow for change makers of all stripes – and I’m glad he is doing it.  As happens too often with Brooks, he gets dangerously close to cultural determinism, but it is by walking that line that he can manage to highlight some very important empirical patterns.

Brooks picks a few examples that point to persistent patterns of inequality – patterns that stay the same, patterns that do not change – not over long periods and not through very different policy regimes.  I appreciate his concluding three rules for policy making:

  1. Don’t promulgate a policy that will destroy social bonds – If you take tribes of people, exile them from their homelands and ship them to strange, arid lands, you’re going to produce bad outcomes for generations.
  2. Try to establish basic security – If the government can establish a basic level of economic and physical security, people may create a culture of achievement — if you’re lucky.
  3. Try to use policy to strengthen relationships – The best policies, like good preschool and military service, fortify emotional bonds.

Whatever we think of his ideological frame, what I appreciate most is his clear understanding of the pre-eminence of social bonds in determining a people’s success.  While like Brooks, I too conclude that:

We should all probably calm down about politics. Most of the proposals we argue about so ferociously will have only marginal effects on how we live, especially compared with the ethnic, regional and social differences that we so studiously ignore.

What I think is even more exciting is that we can build social bonds, and we can focus our attention on strengthening social bonds in our communities with or without policy victories.  How do we re-imagine our work – even our efforts to change policy – so that we are building strong communities every single step of the way?  What are the ways in which movement can prioritize relationship?

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  • Yawu says:

    I think in some instances, policy changes are critical. They speak to the world we want to live in. They tend to work best when they’re dictated by court order, like the laws mandating integration of schools, municipal hiring, public housing etc. in Boston.

    When they’re hammered out in legislative bodies, like with health care reform, the results are less than revolutionary.

    I think the real hard work of changing society through building relationships is ultimately more important. And way more difficult. But sometimes it’s impossible without policy changes.

  • Gibran says:

    Yawu – to be honest, and I know this is heresy here in the social change world, but I actually believe we can get to the work of connecting to one another with our without policy change and I believe the implications of such work would take us much farther than all the policy work we are currently doing.

    I do think it is complex, Arizona’s Juan Crow measures tell us that policy matters – and it does! I just think it’s a matter of expanding our attention beyond that which is piece-meal and measurable

  • Curtis Ogden says:


    Not sure if you saw this interview with Michael Copps, head of the FCC. As a government guy, he comes across as being very clear-eyed about the role of government and policy in making change – http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04232010/watch2.html. Here he is speaking about government’s role in keeping “the net” free from corporate ownership and determinism. His take on the definition and function of “regulation” I find to be particularly helpful.

    Thanks as always for helping me to think!

  • Kimberly Simmons says:

    What I found maddening about that David Brooks piece is his willful ignorance about how social policy in the United States was crafted to intentionally distribute wealth and poverty unequally. Of course Swedes in the U.S. have a much lower rate of poverty than other groups, it doesn’t surprise me that they would be similar to Swedes in Sweden. To be a white, European, able and wanting to immigrate to the United States, is to likely be in a place of financial well being to begin with. Social policies from Slavery through the Jim Crow area to now put the burden of poverty disproportionately on people of color — which I know you all know! Individuals and relationships can not change tax policy, housing policies, educational disparities, etc. It is possible that we need relationships with people different from us to spur us toward believing in social justice policies,and that is hard work given how segregated we are. I believe in many paths, but hate to see policy change disparaged when so many people already believe that poverty is because of individual choice and ability (Brook’s basic point) and the underlying structures are invisible and naturalized by writers like Brooks.

  • Gibran says:

    Kim – I have Arizona on my mind, a policy of apartheid that forces workers of color to hide. Here in Massachusetts the children of immigrants are denied access to in-state tuition rates even if they’ve been here all their lives.

    In my own life, I know I would not be here today without key policies that have facilitated opportunity.

    I’m not saying policy does not matter, and I’m certainly not aligning myself with anything that denies the racialized outcomes of policies that have been direct aggressions on people of color.

    I grew up in an tightly bonded intentional community of working class Puerto Rican people. It was absolutely essential to any success I can claim in my life. However, I am also aware that nothing in it could undo Arizona today.

    Policy is not enough. Social bonds are not enough. And denying history is wrong.

    However, the current emphasis on policy as the way out of the mess we’ve made is significantly limiting our possibilities. And it is a hope that tends to ignores the fact that our mechanisms for making AND implementing policy have really broken down.

    More on this in next Tuesday’s post, and THANK YOU for the clear reminder.

  • Kim Simmons says:

    I am curious who you are thinking of when you say “the current emphasis on policy…” It is funny for me, since I am surrounded by people who seem focused on “be the change” ways of thinking, either in terms of trying to create a sustainable, just and happy personal life and hope it radiates out or in terms of working on influencing individual “choice”. I desperately wish my students and friends would consider structural change as part of what they want to work toward… but I imagine if I lived or worked in other spaces, I’d be overwhelmed with policy-wonk-ness and wishing for a different point of view… maybe I need a new job 🙂 Kim

  • Gibran says:

    Wow Kim, that simple statement was a loud reminder that people operate in very different contexts. I most often address myself to the part of the social sector where my work and relationships are concentrated. I am privileged to know and work with some of the most passionate and committed people I know. This crew, my crew, still has a deep attachment to policy change as the venue for transformation.

    I can also see how many of my peers react very strongly to anything that de-emphasizes a structural approach. The image is one of people with lots of privilege staring at their navels and feeling good about themselves and their interior well-being even as the world falls apart around them.

    My sense is that we need a deep integration of three aspects of transformation – structural, community and Self.

    PS – I think that even here at IISC I am among a very small minority that is uncomfortable with the central roll of policy, I know our Executive Director is deeply committed to policy outcomes.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Hi all,
    I would be one of those colleagues who carries the banner for a structural analysis and a historically grounded understanding of the injustices that have been perpetrated against people of color. And, I agree that it’s not about reducing the solutions to either changing policy or building social bonds. As a Trinidadian friend of mine says, it’s “all two both!” I believe that policy and practice matters, cultural norms and beliefs matter, assumptions about “the other” and who “we” are in relationship to that “other” matter, that relationships matter, and that spirit matters, too. This reminds me of a piece by Maggie Potapchuk and Lori Villarosa, called Cultivating Interdependence, where she describes several different, (some overlapping) approaches to racial justice work and argues for working all of the approaches in an interdependent way. The complexity of the current reality seems to call for nothing less.


  • Curtis says:

    Nice, Cynthia. “All two both,” indeed! There’s a great piece out there by Scott Page about complex approaches to social problems, in this particular instance he is focusing on public health (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18556599). “Behavior change is often a quantum event,” says he. What this means is that we have to throw a whole bunch of different solutions at it, because the problem itself is systemic and what might have worked to create a tipping point on Tuesday may not be what works on Wednesday.

  • Kim says:

    Makes me wonder how we come to agreement about what content we’ll focus on… if we could let many different spheres of skills and practices happen but address them all toward a few fundamental and shared spaces maybe we could create a tipping point, but what happens if we’re all fragmented in terms of skill, practice, and content, even if it is under the large banner of “progressive?” Yet turf and power struggles can make it so hard to get shared alliance. All full circle, I guess, back to IISC’s work…

    On a lighter note, I watched the YES Men movie (http://theyesmen.org/) and it made me think maybe there’s more space for play in all this social-change stuff, or at least if there is going to be deception, make it a whopper.

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