States Are in Crisis. Why Won’t Trump Help?

tags: political history, New Deal, urban history, Great Society, Federalism

Lizabeth Cohen is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 and, most recently, Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2020. 

When most people think of the New Deal, they think of the enduring institutions it created — above all, the web of agencies and programs that has provided the social safety net, such as it is, for life in the United States since the 1950s. A national retirement system, public housing, collective bargaining, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage — all had their origins during the Great Depression.

More important than any specific benefits, however, was the way that the New Deal recast the structure of American federalism. Washington stepped in to address a crisis that states and local governments were failing miserably to meet on their own, overwhelmed by tremendous need and limited by the resources and powers at their disposal.

New Deal federalism has shaped American governance for almost a century, and it has played a vital role in our country’s success. Now, with the Covid-19 crisis wreaking havoc across every state in America and the president unwilling to hold up Washington’s end of the bargain, that system may be falling apart.


When Covid-19 reared its ugly head this winter, governors and mayors quite naturally expected the federal government to supply medical equipment, to set strict standards guiding testing and public activity and to mount a national strategy for battling the disease. Instead what they encountered was an anemic federal response that belittled anything more as resembling the menial labor of a shipping clerk.

Read entire article at New York Times

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