There are several areas where elected officials and government employees at all levels excelled at problem-solving and succeeded in improving the lives of Americans.

There are several areas where elected officials and government employees at all levels excelled at problem-solving and succeeded in improving the lives of Americans. Sean Gladwell/Getty Images

Six Big Government Success Stories of the Last Two Decades

Often, it’s not what government has accomplished that’s significant, but what it has prevented from happening.

At the dawn of the 21st century, Paul C. Light, a public administration scholar, published a study assessing government’s biggest accomplishments of the previous 50 years. 

“Looking back from the edge of a new millennium,” he wrote in Government Executive, “it is difficult not to be proud of what the federal government has tried to achieve in the past half century. Name a significant domestic or foreign problem, and the federal government made some effort to solve it. If a nation's greatness is measured in part by what its national government succeeds in doing, the United States measures up very well, indeed.”

Light’s research involved surveying 450 American history and government professors, asking them to rank government’s greatest achievements. The list they were presented included efforts to reduce discrimination, help veterans readjust to civilian life, strengthen the nation's highway system, ensure safe food and drinking water, and provide financial security in retirement. The top vote-getters were rebuilding Europe after World War II, expanding the right to vote, and promoting access to public accommodations. In a reflection of a different fiscal era, “reducing the federal budget deficit” also landed in the top 10. 

Even at the time, many of the items on the list involved decades-old endeavors. What about more recent history, especially the two decades since Light’s research was published? It’s safe to say that fewer Americans would endorse the view that government has done “very well, indeed.” The list of recent government failures to effectively address issues from racial justice to climate change is long. 

But that doesn’t mean that everything the government has attempted in the past couple of decades has come up short. There are several areas where elected officials and government employees at all levels excelled at problem-solving and succeeded in improving the lives of Americans. Some of their efforts attracted great attention (even if it tended to fade rather quickly). Others never received widespread attention. Here are six examples.

1. Facilitated the Development of a Covid Vaccine

“The success of the U.S. Covid-19 vaccine effort didn’t happen on its own,” Health Affairs reported in May 2021. “It was enabled by decades of long-term investments by the federal government, followed by additional federal investment in the development of the Covid-19 vaccines themselves. The government invested extensively in every aspect of the basic science, preclinical development, and clinical trials for the vaccines; it executed procurement contracts that were critical to creating successful vaccines and ensuring they were available to the U.S. public.”

That involved building on extensive long-term scientific endeavors. Kizzmekia Corbett, a fellow at the National Institutes of Health, spent seven years studying coronaviruses. She ended up helping to lead NIH’s efforts to work in partnership with biotechnology firm Moderna to develop one of the vaccines. NIH also directed billions of dollars in federal funds to vaccine research, and the government invested in developing critical manufacturing capacity for private companies to quickly roll out the vaccines.

That vaccine development effort unfolded in record time in part due to the creative thinking on the part of government regulatory officials. Typically, the process of developing and fielding a vaccine takes years. Part of that is the federal approval process, which can consume almost a year. In the case of coronavirus vaccines, though, the Food and Drug Administration “rushed all coronavirus vaccines to the front of the review lines,” Science News reported. The result: the Moderna vaccine got approved for emergency use in just 19 days, and Pfizer’s in only 21 days. Under Operation Warp Speed, some of the vaccine makers got federal contracts to produce doses even before clinical trials were completed. Only the government could take on that level of risk.

We’re still suffering through the effects of the pandemic. But without the swift, creative solutions devised by federal officials, things would be much worse.

2. Averted Financial Catastrophe in 2008

In 2008, as the housing bubble burst and huge banks and insurance companies threatened to go under, government officials were faced with a stark choice. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission described it this way in its report in 2011: “either risk the total collapse of our financial system and economy or inject trillions of taxpayer dollars into the financial system and an array of companies, as millions of Americans still lost their jobs, their savings, and their homes.”

They took the second path, and as painful as it was, ended up preventing a much deeper crisis than the nation was ultimately forced to endure. 

“The massive and multifaceted policy responses to the financial crisis and Great Recession — ranging from traditional fiscal stimulus to tools that policymakers invented on the fly — dramatically reduced the severity and length of the meltdown that began in 2008; its effects on jobs, unemployment, and budget deficits; and its lasting impact on today’s economy,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in 2015.

Without the federal government’s extraordinary intervention, CBPP estimated, the economy would have contracted for more than three years, over 17 million jobs would have been lost and unemployment would have been as high as 16%.

Many of the government’s actions, such as the bank bailouts under the Troubled Assets Relief Program, were deeply unpopular. But despite the criticism they received, such measures prevented fiscal catastrophe.

Early in Barack Obama’s presidency, at the height of the financial crisis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told him, “Your accomplishment is going to be preventing a second Great Depression.” Obama shot back, “I’m not going to be defined by what I prevented.” There are many worse things that can happen to a president. 

3. Expanded Access to Health Insurance

Few recent government initiatives have engendered as much controversy and criticism across the political spectrum as the 2010 Affordable Care Act. To Democrats, it fell short of the ultimate goal of guaranteeing all Americans access to adequate health care. To Republicans, it was (and remains) a symbol of government overreach.

But it’s clear that the law and subsequent revisions have significantly increased the number of Americans with health insurance and access to medical care. 

A RAND report found that a net of nearly 17 million Americans were newly insured three years after the ACA’s enactment. The number of uninsured Americans dropped from 42.7 million to 25.8 million. A later study by the Commonwealth Fund determined that the law had also “substantially improved access to care for those who gained coverage.” The probability of not receiving medical care because of cost among the newly insured decreased by between 21% and 25%. States that opted to expand Medicaid coverage experienced especially strong benefits.

Other effects of the ACA include protections for those with preexisting medical conditions, improved access to prescription drugs and a prohibition on insurance companies rescinding coverage for reasons other than fraud. 

4. Improved Children’s Health

In the past couple of decades, government agencies have stepped up efforts to improve access to health care, expand food and nutrition programs and reduce pollution. These efforts were aimed at improving the life expectancy of Americans, especially the young. 

The result has been a significant improvement in children’s health, according to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics in December 2018. Mortality rates in the United States declined for infants and youths from 1999 to 2015, the study found, particularly due to reductions in sudden infant death syndrome, unintentional injuries and homicides.

Likewise, a 2016 Princeton University study found that death rates among children and young adults were on the decline. And the greatest improvements, it turned out, were in poor counties. In the wealthiest counties, deaths in a child’s first three years decreased by 4.2 per 1,000 births between 1990 and 2010. In poor counties, the decline was almost twice as large—8 per 1,000 births.

“There have been tremendous improvements in the health of poor American children over the past 20 years, and yet the dominant narrative has completely ignored these improvements,” said one of the study’s lead authors, Janet Currie, a Princeton economics professor, at the time the study was released. “It’s surprising how large the reductions in mortality are for younger people, how they extend through childhood into young adulthood, and how little anyone has paid attention to this incredible health success story.”

5. Increased Infrastructure Investment

For years, elected officials have talked about the need for investment in improving the nation’s infrastructure, to the point that “infrastructure week” became a running gag during the Trump administration. Then last year came the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

Democrats lamented that the final measure didn’t include increased funding for social programs like child care and elder care. Republicans charged that the spending would add to the ballooning federal deficit and not solve the nation's infrastructure improvement problem. 

Nevertheless, the IIJA represents a historic level of new investment in improving roads and bridges, expanding internet access, and developing clean energy. It funds 380 programs, 132 of them new. Specific funding includes:

  • $55 billion to provide access to clean drinking water
  • $65 billion to expand access to high-speed broadband internet service
  • $110 billion for road and bridge repair
  • $90 billion for public transit
  • $25 billion for airport improvements and $17 billion for port infrastructure and waterways
  • $7.5 billion to build out a national network of electric vehicle chargers

The jury is still out on just how much difference the IIJA will make in improving the nation’s infrastructure. But at more than a trillion dollars in spending, it represents a serious effort to at least make a dent in the problem.

6. Improved Highway Safety

Time was, traveling the roads in a motor vehicle was a seriously risky proposition.

In 1913, according to the National Safety Council, 33.38 people died for every 10,000 vehicles on the road. In 2020, the death rate was 1.53 per 10,000 vehicles, a 95% improvement. In 1937, there were 30.8 deaths per 100,000 people in the United States. The current rate is 12.9 per 100,000—a 58% improvement.

A host of government actions, including seat belt laws, stricter drunk driving measures and requirements for more crash-resistant vehicles, are largely responsible for the improvement, which continued well into the 21st century. 

In October 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that traffic deaths had once again decreased from 2018 to 2019, from 36,835 fatalities to 36,096. The 2% drop came despite the fact that vehicle miles traveled were on the rise. 

Today, this long-term record of improvement is at risk. Traffic volume went down dramatically in 2020 as the nation went into lockdown, but risky driver behaviors, such as speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, sent the rate of fatal crashes upward. Still both the long- and near-term trends indicate government has taken the initiative across a number of fronts to make life safer for Americans.

Going Unnoticed

These are just representative examples of the achievements government has chalked up in recent years. The list doesn’t include ongoing work, such as Veterans Affairs hospital care, air traffic control, National Weather Service storm warnings, disaster response, small-business loans, food safety inspection, and the gathering and publication of economic statistics. Nor does it include individual accomplishments. These are achievements of a sweeping nature. 

Government employees accomplished these things at a time when very little progress was made on the kind of management reforms that would make agencies more efficient and effective. They also made these advances in an era marked by extreme political polarization. Simply managing through endless government shutdowns and budget uncertainty is a remarkable achievement, as is shifting virtually overnight to a fully remote work environment during a pandemic. 

Of course, a strong case could be made that the federal government’s failures over the past couple of decades are more prominent and significant than its successes. Just as some of government’s biggest achievements have involved preventing bad things from happening, some of the areas in which it has fallen well short of the mark involve failing in such prevention efforts. These include the opioid crisis, income inequality, racial justice, gun safety and domestic terrorism, climate change and the overall response to Covid-19. 

The point is not that the government at any level of the United States always deserves high (or even passing) marks. It is that sometimes, government’s notable achievements go unnoticed, or are simply taken for granted.