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State and Local Government, Changing Balance

changed politics, grammatical construction, constant dollars, Articles of Confederation, agricultural extension services

In the 1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, the states had a good deal of control over their own internal affairs, and many Americans wanted the states to maintain that control. Others wanted a strong national government, with limited powers for the states. To compromise, the Founders created a federal system, which balanced power between the state and federal governments. In the first half of the 19th century, the states maintained their power, and the national government was much less active. Most U.S. citizens felt their strongest allegiance to their state, not to the national government. Before the Civil War, Americans said “the United States are,” a grammatical construction that stressed the primacy of the individual states. After the war, they began to say, “the United States is,” their changed grammar revealing their changed politics.

However, the relationship between the national government and the state and local governments has continued to change. A profound change came as a result of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the 1930s. For the first time, the national government became involved in areas, related mainly to the economy, that previously had been the responsibility of the states. As a result, a cooperative form of federalism emerged, in which the national government took a more active role in policies that had been under the jurisdiction of the states.

Often the national government gave grants to state and local governments to implement federal programs, such as establishing agricultural extension services or hiring more police. In the 1960s federal grants to the states were extended to cover areas such as housing, health, and education. Since the enactment of the 1972 General Revenue Sharing Act, state and local governments have received a portion of the federal income taxes paid by their citizens. Between 1965 and 1970, the amount of federal grants in constant dollars more than doubled from $10 billion to $24 billion; by 1995 it had reached $169 billion. All these grants were to be used by the states to pursue goals defined by the national government. Grants have grown so much that many local governments have come to depend on federal money. Some cities—Buffalo, New York, and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for example—receive as much as one-third of their budgets from federal aid.

However, some local officials have become concerned that federal grants do not necessarily reflect the needs of different localities. A city may need funds to improve its parks, but the federal grant may specify money to build libraries. In addition, the federal government may give support for needed institutions such as nursing homes but then may require states to accept various regulations. Moreover, many rural areas receive little of this federal money, because they lack the personnel to apply for grants.

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