Federalism & Poverty

Many Americans believe that the federal government is too big, both in the number of agencies it directs and in the scope of its powers. Some people also think that the daily business of Capitol Hill has no effect on their lives, in part because they believe that politicians do not understand their problems. This dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C., in recent years has renewed debate over the division of power between federal and state and local governments.
Federalism—the sharing of power between the states and the national government—has been a major issue throughout U.S. history. Thomas R. Dye defines federalism as “a division of power between two separate authorities—the nation and the states—each of which enforces its own laws directly on its citizens” (Dye, 1999, p.98). When the U.S. Constitution established the federal government in 1787, it only exercised limited or enumerated powers, such as making treaties and printing money. The Tenth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, clarified that all other powers belonged to the states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,” (U.S. Const., 1791, Amend. 10).
Over the years, in response to national crisis, many of the government’s powers, particularly those over social programs, were centralized to the federal level. However, in recent years, an increasing number of people on Capitol Hill and across the country want to devolve, or transfer, power from Washington, D.C. to state and local governments. After the 1994 elections, the Republican majority in Congress pursued the devolution agenda as part of the party’s Contract with America. According to Michael S. Greve, “One crown jewel of the devolution campaign...was the 1996 welfare reform, which replaced the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, a set of very stringent, categorical federal requirements, with block grants to the states” (Greve, 1999,p.120). Within general federal guidelines, the states are permitted to design and implement their own welfare programs.
State governments are largely responsible for managing the budgets and enforcing the laws in many policy areas, such as poverty and education. Many members of Congress want the states to take on even greater authority in these areas and other, including environmental protection and crime control. Some experts believe that state governments will be able to tackle these problems more effectively and efficiently than Washington. Others, however, doubt that the federal government will provide adequate funds and worry that some states do not have the necessary infrastructure to offer adequate services.
Before the Great Depression, aid to the poor came mostly from churches and charity organizations. When millions of Americans fell into poverty in the 1930s, however, charities and state governments were not financially equipped to provide for the needy, and there was no federal policy in place to provide aid to low-income people. President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress wrote landmark legislation, known collectively as the “New Deal,” to combat the effects of the Great Depression. The new legislation included massive job programs that provided work for unemployed Americans. Other programs, like Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Social Security, offered financial assistance to people who could not work because of family responsibilities, age, or disability. This legislation also marked the beginning of an era of centralization; control over many services became more concentrated in the federal government.
The legacy of Roosevelt’s New Deal continued with President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” three decades later. In 1964, in the annual message to the Congress on the State of the Union, President Johnson declared that “no society could be great with poverty in its midst” (Johnson, 1964). Johnson implemented social programs designed to eliminate poverty by moving people up the social ladder through vocational education and job training. He also promoted programs, such as food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid, to help poor and older Americans get enough food and adequate health care. Johnson called his plan the “Great Society.”
President Richard Nixon advanced many of the New Deal and Great Society programs by establishing the Supplemental Security Income program and expanding the food stamp program. Alice Rivilin wrote,” President Nixon was attracted to revenue sharing which fit well with his new federalism philosophy of increasing state autonomy” (Rivilin, 1992,p.100). Revenue