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In Defense of Grassroots-Powered Progressive Federalism


Annelise Orleck is professor of history at Dartmouth College and the author of five books on the history of US women, politics, immigration, and activism, including Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. 

Over fifty years ago, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward suggested that poor people’s movements take to the streets as their only lever for influencing public policy. But as the 1960s welfare rights movement they were advising soon showed, and as the modern living wage and labor movements have demonstrated, “progressive federalism” can enhance the power of poor and working people. Rather than serving as an obstacle to progressive change, the diffusion of power and resources across federal, state and local governments has allowed poor people’s movements to turn to federal authorities at times when local governments have been conservative and resistant and vice versa. Today, progressive federalism has allowed community-based organizations and poor people’s movements to expand the political class—making successful runs for elected office and pushing through local ordinances that become models for other city, state, and federal governments.

Progressive federalism importantly recognizes that economically disadvantaged people have not been able to rely on the federal government as the sole means of checking more regressive local political regimes. The belief that the federal government can be an ally against conservative governors and state legislatures seemed plausible during the 1930s when FDR, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and key Democratic Senators laid the cornerstones of the federal welfare state—passing old age pensions, unemployment insurance, the right to unionize, and cash aid to single mothers and their children. But even in that first golden age of federal power, FDR and Senate Democrats sidestepped local resistance to federal cash aid, work relief and public works programs by allowing states to administer programs as they saw fit.  State authorities in turn often devolved power to local elites. Local race and gender hierarchies were hardened. Even as the power of the executive was expanded and Congress passed legislation that literally transformed the structure of the American state, political realities prevailed. Federal power was expanded only by making moral compromises that strengthened Jim Crow regimes on the state and local levels.

And yet, the raft of federal entitlements and the crucial legislation that came out of the Roosevelt years—the Social Security Act, National Labor Relations Act, Fair Labor Standards Act and more—arose out of activism by local labor and economic justice movements and supplied crucial political leverage to poor and working people. When federal mandates and laws went unenforced locally, activists could plausibly and did, with some success, turn to the federal government to demand enforcement. In the 1960s and 70s, they also turned successfully to the Supreme Court to enforce the rights of cash aid recipients, victims of sexual harassment in the workplace and more.

However, federal authorities continued to make compromises with state and local governments that were expressly intended to expand the power of local elected officials and limit the power of community-based activists, particularly people of color. Amendments to the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, made in response to complaints by Democratic mayors in the North (especially Chicago’s Richard Daley) and segregationist Democratic governors in the South, intentionally took some steam out of the most subversive piece of the EOA, the mandate for “maximum feasible participation” by the poor. In the original bill, community-based organizations were able to sidestep local governments and apply directly for federal funds. By 1967, the Green Amendments allowed local elected officials to appoint Community Action Agency boards that awarded and administered those funds. While the amendments did mandate that the poor be represented on those boards, they ensured their domination by elites with a stake in preserving the status quo.

Given these limits and contradictions of federal power, poor and working people cannot rely on the federal government alone. Although the states have proven problematic as sure sources of progressive change, local activists have built on successful municipal organizing to make successful runs at public office, increase the minimum wage, and pioneer Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) that become models for other cities and states, while also influencing state and federal governments.

California provides a compelling example of how progressive federalism has enabled community-based organizations and poor people’s movements to expand the political class. Once reliably red, California has been shifted to deep blue, in part as a result of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor decision in the 1990s to stop writing checks to candidates for city posts and instead to run its own candidates. This decision enhanced political participation by poor and undocumented union members, as undocumented workers registered documented immigrants and other union members to vote and run for office. This strategy (coordinated with the ever-creative engine of policy innovation the Los Angeles Alliance for A New Economy – LAANE) resulted in a raft of progressive victories from living wage laws to Community Benefits Agreements to electric fleets of public vehicles. This strategy cemented Southern California as a bastion of progressivism, which in turn made the state super-blue. With a super-majority in Sacramento, Democratic governors have passed sweeping climate change initiatives, a $15 minimum wage in the nation’s largest labor market, and have extended California’s Medi-Cal health insurance to undocumented immigrants.

The living wage movement is also a clear example of the kinds of life changing victories that can be won via “progressive federalism.” The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2007. Responding to successive waves of protest since 2012 by low-wage workers in the Fight for $15 and other workers’ movements, seven states have now passed $15 wage bills. Between 2012 and 2016 alone, U.S. workers won themselves 12 times the amount in wage increases that Congress awarded them the last time it raised the federal minimum. These changes illustrate the importance of working through local governments for changes that have been harder won, or not won at all, on the federal level.

And we haven’t yet talked about cities. Perhaps the most important initiatives we have seen in cities, and not just large ones, have been Community Benefits Agreements. Pioneered by LAANE and the Partnership for Working Families, these CBAs have harnessed the frenzied energy of real estate development to guarantee that developers who want tax incentives and zoning variances from city governments in turn must provide union jobs for local residents (including women, vets and the disabled), environmentally safe building and hauling practices, and affordable housing for local residents in the neighborhoods where they build. CBAs depend on outreach by community-based organizations to local governments and a partnership between them to set the terms of development. Most recently, LAANE has pioneered a program called Jobs To Move America that harnesses the transportation procurement budgets of large cities to guarantee that when cities contract to produce and buy new buses, trucks and trains, a sizeable part of the production of those vehicles will take place in the cities that paid for them.

So where does all of this take us on the question of progressive federalism? Evidence from ninety years of U.S. history convinces me that the federalist system works for poor and working people precisely because it provides desperately needed leverage for those who need it most. Poor and working people cannot afford theoretical or ideological purity. They need maximum flexibility and have used it repeatedly since the 1930s by turning alternately to local, state and federal authorities to achieve discrete political aims and to make demands for resources. Rather than jettisoning progressive federalism altogether, we should continue using the federalist system to play municipal, county, state and federal governments against each other as a strategy for maximizing power.