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The Crucial Difference Between Policies and Programs

When the goal is social equity, programs are important but policies are for the long term.

In the ongoing struggle for social justice and equity, policies and programs can both be helpful tools. However, government officials and their constituents need to understand the distinctions between the two and the responsibility of governance for policy to institute real, progressive change.

Programs are short-term interventions that create temporary improvements in the wake of challenges. Policies, on the other hand, are covenants we collectively choose to live by, as articulated in legislation and regulation. They inform our socially accepted mores and ethics.

As a citizen of St. Louis, I've witnessed a massive outcry for policy intervention in the year since the killing of a black teenager by a white police officer in nearby Ferguson. To meet that demand, the Ferguson Commission has sought to clarify the best approach for ensuring that the momentous changes that our region and the rest of the country need can happen -- and that, more importantly, they endure.

First, the commission, which I co-chair, identified a few mission-critical areas for driving equity and determined that what is needed is a system for averting racial injustice in policymaking. Whether through a city council, a state legislature or the halls of Congress, we must look carefully at the data and ask: Could certain populations be negatively affected by a piece of legislation?

This is where the distinction between programs and policies comes in. Ultimately, programs can't eliminate the systemic injustices that any group faces. They can help people manage the effects of these injustices, but they don't overcome or cure them. Policies, conversely, actually shift the way communities and their members react and relate to one another, empowering people to improve their own well-being in a systematic way. We can only achieve equity for all in America through collective commitment to policy intervention and a clearly articulated picture of success.

The success of any program or policy is defined by the values a community holds. For America to live its values of liberty, justice, and progress -- marked by equity in health, income, housing and education by providing equal opportunities for success to all -- both programs and policy must target economic mobility.

One true measure of success is whether people and their children can attain equitable life outcomes. In this context, America's scorecard is dismal at best. So how can programs and policies help, respectively?

In 1873, Susan Blow established the first publicly funded kindergarten in the United States at the Des Peres School in the Carondelet neighborhood of St. Louis. A decade later, every school in the city had kindergarten, leading the nation. Now, when more than half of all public-school students live below the poverty line, every American child has access to this resource without restriction, The concept of public education and its systems were set up to guarantee equal access, making this an actual policy intervention and a nationwide commitment.

Subsequently, programs like Parents as Teachers (PAT), an evidence-based home visiting model founded in Missouri in 1981, have been replicated across various states. This program requires school districts to visit parents at home and equip them to prepare their very young children for school by acting as their first teachers.

When programs like PAT are initiated at scale, they can drive a community's values forward. Hard-wiring a program into the state budget, establishing a federal presence, encouraging replication and making it accessible to all individuals are public commitments. Because PAT scaled through public funding and legislation, it actually became a policy intervention.

The provision of civilian oversight for local police forces is another necessary policy intervention. If we hope to improve relationships between citizens and law enforcement in a sustainable way, these bodies should have subpoena power and authority to investigate issues surrounding police behavior. Voluntary community-outreach efforts and community programs such as police athletic leagues can be complementary, but they don't reflect collective vision and values.

For nearly two generations, American government has outsourced its policymaking responsibilities, shifting the burden to a fragmented landscape of nonprofit organizations running social programs rather than drafting policy that guides, nurtures and cultivates communities with fiscal commitments. Our society has come a long way in providing access and opportunity, but lasting change and social equity doesn't happen overnight. The surest way to achieve this vision is to collectively recommit to America's evergreen values of justice and progress and to drive those values through widespread policy change.

President of the Deaconess Foundation and co-chair of the Ferguson Commission
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