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U.S. Domestic Policy Research

How to research policy and legislation applying to those in the United States of America

Categories of Domestic Policy

"Focuses on maintaining social order by outlawing behaviors and actions that endanger the public. This is typically accomplished by enacting laws and policies banning individuals, companies, and other parties from taking actions that might endanger social order. Such regulatory laws and policies might range from mundane issues like local traffic laws to laws protecting the right to vote, preventing racial and gender discrimination, stopping human trafficking and fighting illegal drug trade and use. Other important regulatory policy laws protect the public from abusive business and financial practices, protect the environment, and ensure safety in the workplace." [1]

1. How Domestic Policy in US Government Affects Americans’ Daily Lives. (2021, July 27). ThoughtCo. Retrieved from

"Focuses on ensuring the fair provisions of taxpayer-supported government benefits, goods, and services to all individuals, groups, and corporations. Such goods and services funded by citizens’ taxes include items like public education, public safety, roads and bridges, and welfare programs. Tax-supported government benefits include programs such as farm subsidies and tax write-offs to promote home ownership, energy savings, and economic development." [1]

1. How Domestic Policy in US Government Affects Americans’ Daily Lives. (2021, July 27). ThoughtCo. Retrieved from

"Focuses on one of the most difficult and controversial aspects of domestic policy: the equitable sharing of the nation’s wealth. The goal of the redistributive policy is to fairly transfer funds raised through taxation from one group or program to another. The aim of such redistribution of wealth is often to end or alleviate social problems like poverty or homelessness. However, since the discretionary expenditure of tax dollars is controlled by Congress, lawmakers sometimes abuse this power by diverting funds from programs that address social problems to programs that do not." [1]

1. How Domestic Policy in US Government Affects Americans’ Daily Lives. (2021, July 27). ThoughtCo. Retrieved from

"Focuses on creating government agencies to help provide services to the public. Over the years, for example, new agencies and departments have been created to deal with taxes, to administer programs like Social Security and Medicare, to protect consumers, and to ensure clean air and water, just to name a few." [1]

1. How Domestic Policy in US Government Affects Americans’ Daily Lives. (2021, July 27). ThoughtCo. Retrieved from

More on Categories of Domestic Policy


Public policy, then, ultimately boils down to determining the distribution, allocation, and enjoyment of public, common, and toll goods within a society. While the specifics of policy often depend on the circumstances, two broad questions all policymakers must consider are a) who pays the costs of creating and maintaining the goods, and b) who receives the benefits of the goods? When private goods are bought and sold in a market place, the costs and benefits go to the participants in the transaction. Your landlord benefits from receipt of the rent you pay, and you benefit by having a place to live. But non-private goods like roads, waterways, and national parks are controlled and regulated by someone other than the owners, allowing policymakers to make decisions about who pays and who benefits.

In 1964, Theodore Lowi argued that it was possible to categorize policy based upon the degree to which costs and benefits were concentrated on the few or diffused across the many. One policy category, known as distributive policy, tends to collect payments or resources from many but concentrates direct benefits on relatively few. Highways are often developed through distributive policy. Distributive policy is also common when society feels there is a social benefit to individuals obtaining private goods such as higher education that offer long-term benefits, but the upfront cost may be too high for the average citizen. One example of the way distributive policy works is the story of the Transcontinental Railroad. In the 1860s, the U.S. government began to recognize the value of building a robust railroad system to move passengers and freight around the country. A particular goal was connecting California and the other western territories acquired during the 1840s war with Mexico to the rest of the country. The problem was that constructing a nationwide railroad system was a costly and risky proposition. To build and support continuous rail lines, private investors would need to gain access to tens of thousands of miles of land, some of which might be owned by private citizens. The solution was to charter two private corporations—the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads—and provide them with resources and land grants to facilitate the construction of the railroads. Through these grants, publicly owned land was distributed to private citizens, who could then use it for their own gain. However, a broader public gain was simultaneously being provided in the form of a nationwide transportation network. The same process operates in the agricultural sector, where various federal programs help farmers and food producers through price supports and crop insurance, among other forms of assistance. These programs help individual farmers and agriculture companies stay afloat and realize consistent profits. They also achieve the broader goal of providing plenty of sustenance for the people of the United States, so that few of us have to “live off the land.” Other examples of distributive policy support citizens’ efforts to achieve “the American Dream.” American society recognizes the benefits of having citizens who are financially invested in the country’s future. Among the best ways to encourage this investment are to ensure that citizens are highly educated and have the ability to acquire high-cost private goods such as homes and businesses. However, very few people have the savings necessary to pay upfront for a college education, a first home purchase, or the start-up costs of a business. To help out, the government has created a range of incentives that everyone in the country pays for through taxes but that directly benefit only the recipients. Examples include grants (such as Pell grants), tax credits and deductions, and subsidized or federally guaranteed loans. Each of these programs aims to achieve a policy outcome. Pell grants exist to help students graduate from college, whereas Federal Housing Administration mortgage loans lead to home ownership. A related distributive project is the effort to bring broadband internet to remote rural areas of the country that have disproportionately felt the negative effects of the digital divide. Such a project is the most ambitious infrastructure initiative since the Rural Electrification Act. Broadband is spreading slowly for now, mostly helped along by rural co-ops. However, multiple federal agencies are investigating how to help this effort, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission.

While distributive policy, according to Lowi, has diffuse costs and concentrated benefits, regulatory policy features the opposite arrangement, with concentrated costs and diffuse benefits. A relatively small number of groups or individuals bear the costs of regulatory policy, but its benefits are expected to be distributed broadly across society. As you might imagine, regulatory policy is most effective for controlling or protecting public or common resources. Among the best-known examples are policies designed to protect public health and safety, and the environment. These regulatory policies prevent manufacturers or businesses from maximizing their profits by excessively polluting the air or water, selling products they know to be harmful, or compromising the health of their employees during production. In the United States, nationwide calls for a more robust regulatory policy first grew loud around the turn of the twentieth century and the dawn of the Industrial Age. Investigative journalists—called muckrakers by politicians and business leaders who were the focus of their investigations—began to expose many of the ways in which manufacturers were abusing the public trust. Although various forms of corruption topped the list of abuses, among the most famous muckraker exposés was The Jungle, a 1906 novel by Upton Sinclair that focused on unsanitary working conditions and unsavory business practices in the meat-packing industry. 10 This work and others like it helped to spur the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906) and ultimately led to the creation of government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).11 The nation’s experiences during the depression of 1896 and the Great Depression of the 1930s also led to more robust regulatory policies designed to improve the transparency of financial markets and prevent monopolies from forming.

A final type of policy is redistributive policy, so named because it redistributes resources in society from one group to another. That is, according to Lowi, the costs are concentrated and so are the benefits, but different groups bear the costs and enjoy the benefits. Most redistributive policies are intended to have a sort of “Robin Hood” effect; their goal is to transfer income and wealth from one group to another such that everyone enjoys at least a minimal standard of living. Typically, the wealthy and middle class pay into the federal tax base, which then funds need-based programs that support low-income individuals and families. A few examples of redistributive policies are Head Start (education), Pell Grants (higher education), Medicaid (health care), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, income support), and food programs like the Supplementary Nutritional Aid Program (SNAP). The government also uses redistribution to incentivize specific behaviors or aid small groups of people. Pell grants to encourage college attendance and tax credits to encourage home ownership are other examples of redistribution.

“American Government 3e” by Krtuz, Waskiewicz, Bernard, Danley-Scot, Kordas, Lawrence, Neaves, Newmark, Simpson, Trosky, Webb, Williams, Wrzenski is licensed under CCY BY 4.0




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