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Welfare reform and a new federalism. Letting the states and localities and Washington do what each does best

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AS we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the United States Constitution, we should use the occasion to strengthen the federal system that has been the backbone of our governmental structure and to focus on the roles federal, state, and local governments play in American society. Federalism - the system of government in which the nation's power is shared and dispersed among federal, state, and local jurisdictions - is a foundation stone of US democracy. But as the federal government has come to assume more and more responsibilities, these three levels of our government have developed an increasingly complicated and at times highly irrational web of relationships and shared responsibilities for setting policies and for funding, administering, and regulating programs. The federal government often acts in areas where it does not perform well, and yet fails to assume full responsibilities where it should. Reform is necessary, but reform based on rational, pragmatic principles, not on ideology.

The US welfare system is a crazy quilt of varied, often inadequate benefit levels and eligibility criteria, in which the accidents of birth or residence determine a family's level of support. State-by-state variations occur in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), medicaid, and unemployment insurance.

The US should reform its inadequate welfare system and correct major distortions in the structure of federalism at one and the same time, for the two issues are inextricably intertwined. We need no longer see the federal and state governments as locked in battle - both are essential to serve the public adequately. Rather, we should take a functional approach to government and ask what services can best be provided at what level of government. Policy, funding, and administrative responsibility should be allocated to that level of government which can assume it most efficiently.

SOME clear principles should guide such a new federalism.


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