The Evolution of American Federalism


The Great Depression of the 1930s brought economic hardships the nation had never witnessed before (Figure). Between 1929 and 1933, the national unemployment rate reached 25 percent, industrial output dropped by half, stock market assets lost more than half their value, thousands of banks went out of business, and the gross domestic product shrunk by one-quarter.Nicholas Crafts and Peter Fearon. 2010. “Lessons from the 1930s Great Depression,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 26: 286–287; Gene Smiley. “The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics: Great Depression.” Given the magnitude of the economic depression, there was pressure on the national government to coordinate a robust national response along with the states.

Photo shows a line of people in long coats and hats standing in line outside a building with a sign that states “Free Cup Coffee & Doughnuts for the Unemployed”.
A line outside a Chicago soup kitchen in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. The sign above reads “Free Soup, Coffee, and Doughnuts for the Unemployed.”

Cooperative federalism was born of necessity and lasted well into the twentieth century as the national and state governments each found it beneficial. Under this model, both levels of government coordinated their actions to solve national problems, such as the Great Depression and the civil rights struggle of the following decades. In contrast to dual federalism, it erodes the jurisdictional boundaries between the states and national government, leading to a blending of layers as in a marble cake. The era of cooperative federalism contributed to the gradual incursion of national authority into the jurisdictional domain of the states, as well as the expansion of the national government’s power in concurrent policy areas.Marbach et al, Federalism in America: An Encyclopedia.

The New Deal programs President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed as a means to tackle the Great Depression ran afoul of the dual-federalism mindset of the justices on the Supreme Court in the 1930s. The court struck down key pillars of the New Deal—the National Industrial Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act, for example—on the grounds that the federal government was operating in matters that were within the purview of the states. The court’s obstructionist position infuriated Roosevelt, leading him in 1937 to propose a court-packing plan that would add one new justice for each one over the age of seventy, thus allowing the president to make a maximum of six new appointments. Before Congress took action on the proposal, the Supreme Court began leaning in support of the New Deal as Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and Justice Owen Roberts changed their view on federalism.Jeff Shesol. 2010. Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court. New York: W. W. Norton.

In National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) v. Jones and Laughlin Steel,National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) v. Jones & Laughlin Steel, 301 U.S. 1 (1937). for instance, the Supreme Court ruled the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 constitutional, asserting that Congress can use its authority under the commerce clause to regulate both manufacturing activities and labor-management relations. The New Deal changed the relationship Americans had with the national government. Before the Great Depression, the government offered little in terms of financial aid, social benefits, and economic rights. After the New Deal, it provided old-age pensions (Social Security), unemployment insurance, agricultural subsidies, protections for organizing in the workplace, and a variety of other public services created during Roosevelt’s administration.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s administration expanded the national government’s role in society even more. Medicaid (which provides medical assistance to the indigent), Medicare (which provides health insurance to the elderly and disabled), and school nutrition programs were created. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), the Higher Education Act (1965), and the Head Start preschool program (1965) were established to expand educational opportunities and equality (Figure). The Clean Air Act (1965), the Highway Safety Act (1966), and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (1966) promoted environmental and consumer protection. Finally, laws were passed to promote urban renewal, public housing development, and affordable housing. In addition to these Great Society programs, the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) gave the federal government effective tools to promote civil rights equality across the country.

Image A shows Lady Bird Johnson reading to a group of young children. Image B shows Barack Obama sitting at a desk with a couple of elementary school students.
Lady Bird Johnson, the First Lady, reads to students enrolled in Head Start (a) at the Kemper School in Washington, DC, on March 19, 1966. President Obama visits a Head Start classroom (b) in Lawrence, Kansas, on January 22, 2015.

While the era of cooperative federalism witnessed a broadening of federal powers in concurrent and state policy domains, it is also the era of a deepening coordination between the states and the federal government in Washington. Nowhere is this clearer than with respect to the social welfare and social insurance programs created during the New Deal and Great Society eras, most of which are administered by both state and federal authorities and are jointly funded. The Social Security Act of 1935, which created federal subsidies for state-administered programs for the elderly; people with handicaps; dependent mothers; and children, gave state and local officials wide discretion over eligibility and benefit levels. The unemployment insurance program, also created by the Social Security Act, requires states to provide jobless benefits, but it allows them significant latitude to decide the level of tax to impose on businesses in order to fund the program as well as the duration and replacement rate of unemployment benefits. A similar multilevel division of labor governs Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance.Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol. 2014. “Progressive Federalism and the Contested Implemented of Obama’s Health Reform,” In The Politics of Major Policy Reform in Postwar America, eds. Jeffrey A. Jenkins and Sidney M. Milkis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thus, the era of cooperative federalism left two lasting attributes on federalism in the United States. First, a nationalization of politics emerged as a result of federal legislative activism aimed at addressing national problems such as marketplace inefficiencies, social and political inequality, and poverty. The nationalization process expanded the size of the federal administrative apparatus and increased the flow of federal grants to state and local authorities, which have helped offset the financial costs of maintaining a host of New Deal- and Great Society–era programs. The second lasting attribute is the flexibility that states and local authorities were given in the implementation of federal social welfare programs. One consequence of administrative flexibility, however, is that it has led to cross-state differences in the levels of benefits and coverage.R. Kent Weaver. 2000. Ending Welfare as We Know It. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.