The Enduring Relevance of Federalism

Last week in The New York Times, Tom Brokaw wrote an op-ed questioning the enduring validity of the system of federalism that has been in place for over 200 years. He writes, “Every state and every region in the country is stuck with some form of anachronistic and expensive local government structure that dates to horse-drawn wagons, family farms, and small-town convenience.” Is this an accurate depiction, or is it the case that in many instances of failed local government, overly burdensome state and federal governments are preventing the enactment of localized solutions?

Two Brookings Institution scholars, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, responded to Brokaw with a letter to the editor, supporting his claim that in order for the federal-state-local relationship to remain functional, all three levels of government need to have the flexibility to adapt to changing demographics and technologies. Katz and Bradley point out that, where once most people lived and worked in small towns, today the workforce is heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas.  (Katz, Bradley, and others at Brookings have previously written about this issue.)

In their letter, however, Katz and Bradley point out that in some cities federalism is functioning well where proximate municipalities are working together to address the common needs of their residents.  They cite Denver, Louisville, and Portland as cities that have successfully “developed transportation and land-use strategies that reflect the true metropolitan scope of economic and social life.” The cooperation of authorities throughout these metropolitan regions demonstrates that some issues relating to city life are common across the areas surrounding cities, and attempting to handle these issues locally would lead to poorly integrated solutions.

While transit issues are an obvious area in which in makes sense for townships within a metropolis to collaborate, current work of the Neighborhood Development Department in Boston shows us that city governance can implement successful programs that function at the most localized level. The NDD is taking innovative, localized action against the current mortgage foreclosure crisis. Although the foreclosure rate in the city has risen dramatically over the past years, it is doing much better than other cities of comparable size, according to American Public Media’s Marketplace.

Why is this? The city has found that the appropriate level to deal with this challenge is the block level, offering assistance on a case-by-case basis because foreclosures affect each block differently. Mayor Thomas Menino developed a Foreclosure Intervention Team to provide mortgage counseling to potential home buyers and assistance available to homeowners in danger of foreclosure.  In places where rates remain high despite these efforts, the city is providing special services such as increased police presence to monitor vacant buildings and street improvements to make these areas attractive to new buyers or tenants.

Boston’s Neighborhood Development Department demonstrates the beauty of federalism in a world that is constantly changing.  All policy issues are different and need to be dealt with accordingly; although our basic system of governance has not changed since the nation’s founding, it does remain adaptable to the needs of the day, contrary to Brokaw’s assertion.  To make the best possible use of taxpayers’ resources, state governments should allow their municipalities the freedom to take advantage of economies of scale where they exist and to allow for creative, location-specific solutions where top-down management would be stifling.

One thought on “The Enduring Relevance of Federalism

  1. Jim in VA

    Sadly, our society too often mistakes news readers, like Brokaw, for serious political scientists or economists. Celebrity is no substitute for scholarship.

    Federalism works not only in the United States but also in Germany both having centuries-old political cultures which appreciate the flexibility and necessity of local control for local problems.

    The real issue for many, if not most, of those seeking to centralize control of our lives in Washington, DC is power, not the best level of government to address a given issue. These are the same folks who mandate the type of light bulbs we may use and what kind of toilet we should have.

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