No law before or since has changed the built environment as much as the Americans with Disabilities Act and yet done so in ways so subtle as to be unnoticed by most. But if you are in a wheelchair—or are pushing a stroller or dragging wheeled luggage—you’ve benefited from its changes, which make America a fairer and more accessible place for millions of adults and children.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 demolished segregation in the South and took steps toward righting the terrible wrongs visited on African Americans. For these reasons, we should give thanks to the federal government. But these two laws also offer us important lessons today about why and how governments take historic actions—and how government actions can remove barriers to changed hearts.
Public transit didn’t start out as a government service. For more than a century, it was a for-profit industry that government assisted and regulated. When ridership declined and corporations abandoned the business, governments stepped in to keep transit alive. Why? Because buses and trains help cities work better. They also make urban life more affordable and appealing.
If you’ve ever opened a bank account or invested in the stock market, you can thank government for making these everyday investments secure. When did the government get into the business of keeping Wall Street honest and banks sound? During the greatest economic calamity of the past century, the Great Depression of the 1930s. Here’s how the federal government created its regulatory structure, public corporations and banks accepted it, and we have all benefited as a result.
At the start of the Great Depression, 90 percent of farm families had no access to electricity. President Franklin Roosevelt solved the problem with an ingenious system of finance and self-help, and brought modern comforts to millions. We have a similar problem today in large sections of the country that have no high-speed connections to the internet, isolating families and throttling small-town economies. We can thank government for turning on the lights in the 1930s. We’ll need it to step up again a century later.