Can Federalism Be Fixed in a Hyper-Partisan Age?

By Altschuler, Glenn | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 5, 2020 | Go to article overview

Can Federalism Be Fixed in a Hyper-Partisan Age?


Altschuler, Glenn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution 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."

This amendment, Donald Kettl, a professor of public policy at the University of Texas, Austin, reminds us, established "federalism" as a core component of government in the United States. In "The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn't Work," Mr. Kettl argues that this approach has had "far-reaching implications," including significant "dark-side" variations in policies from state-to-state.

In the 19th-century, state assertions of power over slavery resulted in a Civil War. And in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, federalism contributed to significant levels of inequality "that challenge basic values of what the majority of Americans find acceptable" in income, education, health care, infrastructure and the environment. These days, Mr. Kettl maintains, using Obamacare as a recent example, Americans are struggling with a "treacherous balancing act": deciding where the boundaries between state and federal power lie - and managing the boundaries that do get defined.

Mr. Kettl documents the dramatic state-by-state differences in outcomes in areas that matter to most citizens. The 15 "most leading states" (2013-2016) have a 10.2% poverty rate; $67,020 median income; 6% unemployment; 11.1% of families receiving food stamps; 8.3% of citizens with no health insurance; 21.4% of individuals 25 or over with a bachelor's degree. In the 15 "least leading states" the poverty rate is 16.4%; median household income $50,831; unemployment 7.8%; 14.6% get food stamps; 14% have no health insurance; 15.8% have BA's. State environmental quality scores vary enormously. In 2015 the average rate of deficient bridges was eight times the rate in the bottom five states. More than one-fifth of high school students fail to graduate in four years in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and the District of Columbia; in Vermont, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Nebraska the rate is 10%. In the 15 most leading states the imprisonment rate per 100,000 citizens is half the rate of the least leading states.

Mr. Kettl also documents battles between state and federal authorities, many of which have been decided by the courts. Consider, for example the conflict between federal government prohibition of marijuana and legalization by a growing number of states. Or Wisconsin's "welfare to work" reform movement in the 1990s. …

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