Cooperative Federalism: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Cooperative…
  • 1:24 How Does Cooperative…
  • 2:30 Advantages & Disadvantages
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Learn about cooperative federalism, a special relationship between the national government and state and local governments. Discover how this relationship works and what advantages and disadvantages it provides.

What is Cooperative Federalism?

One of the most important questions for any nation to address is how to disperse power among the nation and its many parts (states, counties, provinces, parishes, etc.). Federalism, or the relationship between a central authority and its smaller, constituent parts, can vary quite widely. Throughout history, different people have come up with different ways of dividing the responsibilities of government. One method of dividing this power is through cooperative federalism, in which the national government (often the legislature) enjoys almost unlimited authority to force the smaller parts of government (typically the states) to administer and enforce national policies.

In the United States, cooperative federalism, nicknamed 'marble cake federalism,' became prominent during the New Deal of the 1930s. During this time, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress created a variety of federal programs as part of the New Deal, and these programs were administered by the states to help alleviate the effects of the Great Depression. For instance, the Works Progress Administration program put millions of unemployed to work maintaining roads, building state parks, and completing beautification projects across the United States.

The logo of the Works Program Administration, an example of a cooperative federalist program
The Works Progress Administration

How Does Cooperative Federalism Work?

Cooperative federalism creates a relationship in which the national government strongly influences the policies and behaviors of state governments, often through the use of funding for programs. For example, if the federal government is interested in ensuring that national highways are well-maintained, they might create grants in aid, a specific kind of grant from the federal government that provides funds for the states to pursue a policy. In this case, the grants in aid would likely be for purchasing asphalt or other supplies, or might provide funding to pay contractors and road construction workers.

In some cases, the national government might give the state governments more control over a program through a block grant. With this kind of grant, the state or local government may use funds provided by the national government at their discretion for the general purpose of improving living quality in that state. For instance, the federal government awards block grants to farmers in an effort to increase the competitiveness of specialty crops through various support projects and initiatives.

Farmers received funding for specialty crops as part of a federal block grant in 2007.
Photo showing farmers funded by block grants

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Cooperative Federalism:

Writing Prompt 1:

In a paragraph, explain the concept of cooperative federalism.

Tip: It will help to first define federalism. Then, consider providing an example of cooperative federalism. You might consider an example from the present day or think of an example from history, such as President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program.

Writing Prompt 2:

Write an essay in which you define and detail grants in aid, being sure to spell out the reciprocity between federal and state interests and powers. Be specific.

Example: A state might receive a grant in aid to maintain a National Park. This grant in aid could be funds to help pay park rangers or funds to purchase supplies needed for the general upkeep of the park.

Letter Prompt 1:

Pretend that you are a state representative and you are writing a letter to the federal government asking for a block grant for your state. Be specific.

Example: Consider that you are asking for a block grant to provide funds for your state's public school system because better education will improve the overall quality of life in your state. Explain how this can happen.

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Make a chart or other type of graphic organizer that depicts the pros and cons of cooperative federalism.

Tip: It can be helpful to make two charts: one for the interests of the federal government and one for the interests of the states.

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