Academic journal article Social Work

Articulating a "New Nationalism" in American Social Policy

Academic journal article Social Work

Articulating a "New Nationalism" in American Social Policy

Article excerpt

At a time when signs point toward a diminution of federal roles, it may seem futile to advocate reinvigorating federal power. Yet many social conditions suggest the need for expanded federal roles. Traditional, festering problems like the plight of inner-city residents, homeless people, and medically uninsured citizens have been joined by the problems that have accompanied the globalizing of the American economy. Economic inequality has grown dramatically in the past three decades. The restructuring of corporations, loss of manufacturing jobs, and transfer of jobs abroad have placed millions of Americans in economic uncertainty, including members of the middle class. It is not clear whether state or local governments are positioned to address these problems without federal guidance, even when given federal resources.

After tracing the growth in the power of the federal government from 1950 to 1979, this article discusses three successive assaults on it by conservatives from 1970 to the present. It articulates a rationale for augmented federal roles while acknowledging that state and local governments should often share power with federal authorities. Eight criteria are identified that can be used in tandem to gauge where specific programs should be placed on a federal-to-state continuum, and four recommendations are provided to policy practitioners to help them achieve policy goals. ("Policy practitioners" are social workers who engage in policy advocacy, whether they are direct service, administrative, community organization, or policy-specialized staff.)

Building of a Federally Directed Welfare State: 1950 to 1979

The framers of the Constitution assumed that the federal government would be limited to relatively few functions, such as raising a militia and issuing a currency. They pointedly did not discuss social policy in the Constitution, implying that it (like most powers not enumerated in the document) rested with state and local governments. Aside from relatively minor functions, as well as the funding of war pensions, the American federal government remained remarkably small during the 19th century. Even progressive reformers at the turn of this century, such as Jane Addams, envisioned modest roles for the federal government, focusing on the enactment of many regulations in local and state governments instead (Jansson, 1996).

When compared with previous years, the federal government grew remarkably during the New Deal, expanding its domestic spending from a paltry 2 percent of the gross national product (GNP) in 1930 to nearly 8 percent of the GNP in 1940 (Chubb, 1985). Even this expansion of the federal government seems limited when viewed with hindsight. Most of the funds went to work relief programs for Americans who were unemployed during the Great Depression, with most people, including Franklin Roosevelt, assuming that these "emergency" programs would disappear when the economy recovered. The social insurances of the Social Security Act were self-funding from payroll contributions, requiring few expenditures from federal coffers. Conservatives took advantage of wartime conditions, as well as their control of the Congress in the postwar years, to demolish most of the New Deal programs aside from the social insurances and several welfare programs (Jansson, 1996). Federal domestic spending had been reduced to 7.5 percent of the GNP by 1954 (Rivlin, 1992).

The federal government obtained extraordinary social policy roles in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, however, that placed it in a paramount position in the American federal system. With other economies of the world savaged by World War II, Americans entered three decades of unparalleled economic growth in the wake of the war; the GNP rose in constant prices by 255 percent between 1940 and 1973 (Rivlin, 1992). This economic growth provided the resources to fund a growing domestic budget, even with massive military expenditures during the cold war (Hodgson, 1976). …

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