Federalism and Poverty in the United States
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...