Black clock with white numbers and red and white hands, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

Using the Past to Shape the Future – Changing Policy

We’ve been climbing History’s Hierarchy of Purpose and at last we have reached the top – Using the Past to Shape the Future. This is the juicy part, the really fun purpose to which we can intentionally use history.

When I start putting my mind to it, I can think of many, many ways to use the past to shape the future. I’ll talk about a number of them over the next several posts, but I want to discuss policy first.

Ugh, policy, right? Isn’t that the realm of government policy wonks, people who really dig into the intricacies of how government functions?

Not completely. If you strip policy down to the basics, it’s a course of action we plan to take based on our values, what we want to achieve, and the practical realities with which we are faced.

There can be personal policies, institutional policies, and government policies.

An Example of a Personal Policy

I’ll give you an example of a personal policy based on my gardening activities earlier today.

I like biodiversity in nature. I also believe that Mother Nature doesn’t really need our help. She can take care of herself just fine if we leave her alone. Because of my beliefs, my personal policy of lawn care is to do as little as possible.

Yes, city laws are such that I must mow the lawn, but there is no city law against having a giant lily bed in the front yard, a hosta bed in the side yard, or a small forest of elms and oaks in the back yard. The hostas and lilies are perennials, so they allow me to easily “enforce” my personal policy of minimal lawn care. Even so, there’s always some yard work to do. I try very hard to keep small trees from taking root next to the house. If they get too big, their roots will wreck the foundation. So, I’ve modified my personal policy to take this into consideration. Tiny trees by the house, be gone!

Historic Policies Regarding the Poor

Now for an example of using history to shape future policy.

Early in Morrison County’s history (think pre-1900), there were poor people who did not have the means to take care of themselves. A mother with several kids might be widowed or divorced and left with no financial support. (This was before child support programs.)

Poor people at this time availed themselves of the city council or county commissioners for assistance. Municipalities had a Poor Fund they used to provide support for the indigent. As populations grew, the rate of the poor increased and having individuals make appeals to government officials became inefficient. Morrison County tried to establish a Poor Farm, where the indigent could go to work for their support. The Poor Farm didn’t last very long; it was a failed experiment in assisting the poor.

Somewhere along the line, well into the 1900s, society shifted from expecting individual communities and counties to provide for the poor to a statewide system that is administered through counties. It includes many different types of programs, from food assistance to child care assistance to health care to cash assistance. Likely, there were efficiencies of scale that could be gained by working through a statewide approach.

This is a super rough timeline of how communities have dealt with the poor in Minnesota over time (more research to do!), but it gives you a sense of how a previous policy gives rise to future policies due to changes in values (making poor people work on a Poor Farm, rather than giving them a handout) or practical realities (too many poor people to have them go to the county board individually).

Tracing a Policy Through History

When examining public policy through history, you can pick any given policy and trace it backwards to see how the situation has evolved. This will provide a map of what has worked and what hasn’t.

When using history to shape policy today, one of the important things to decide upon is your end goal. And you need to remember to keep your values (will the policy do more harm than good?) and the practical realities of the situation (where will the money come from to enact this policy?) while coming up with that end goal.


Challenge – Research a Public Policy

Rather than write a separate challenge post, I’ll add my challenge for this post here.

Pick a public policy followed by a local unit of government (state is fine, too) and do some research on where that policy came from. If it is a recent policy, check out the politicians behind it to see what values they are using to shape that policy.

Do you agree with the policy? Disagree?

If you disagree, what would you like to change about the policy? What is your end goal?

History's Hierarchy of Purpose infographic by Mary Warner, 2017.
History’s Hierarchy of Purpose infographic by Mary Warner, 2017.