Devolution: Definition & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Devolution is the transfer of certain powers from the federal government to the states. This lesson explains devolution and examines several programs that are a part of the 'devolution revolution.' Updated: 11/15/2019

Federalism and Devolution

I have three kids. For most of their lives, I've done everything for them! I do their laundry, I provide their meals and I provide all of their transportation. But my kids are now teenagers. I'm still ultimately responsible for them having clean clothes, meals and rides, but I've started giving them some of the control and responsibility for these matters. What does this have to do with government? I'm using devolution!

Devolution is the transfer of certain powers from one entity to another. It's an effort to reduce federal government powers by transferring some responsibilities to the state governments. Through devolution, the states gain responsibility for matters that were previously handled at the federal level.

Devolution is related to federalism. Our Framers developed federalism when creating our United States Constitution. Remember that the Framers didn't want the federal government to have too much power over the people. Federalism, therefore, is a division of power between the federal government and the individual state governments.

Each government entity has responsibilities over the matters that are best addressed at that level of government. For example, the states handle most things themselves, but the federal government administers our national defense, interprets the Constitution and regulates interstate commerce.

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  • 0:02 Federalism and Devolution
  • 1:35 New Federalism
  • 2:49 Devolution Revolution
  • 4:01 Devolution Programs
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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New Federalism

Specifically, devolution is based on the concept of new federalism. Our country moved toward new federalism in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly under the direction of Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan. New federalism allows the states to reclaim some power while recognizing the federal government as the highest governmental power. It's a response to the argument that the federal government grew too powerful during years of operation under other federalism theories.

Under new federalism, government powers are still divided between the federal government and the states. However, the states assume responsibility for federal programs.

Note that the federal government didn't outright give federal powers to the states. Instead, the federal government turned over some responsibility for federal programs so that those programs could be administered at a local level where administrators would be most familiar with the citizens' needs. Think of it as a partnership between the federal government and state governments.

Devolution Revolution

President Reagan campaigned for the 1980 presidency promising to curb the size and influence of the federal government. By the mid 1990s, the term devolution revolution was used to describe this particular era of politics where federal programs were downsized and state responsibilities were increased. The devolution revolution especially applied to various social programs, though Social Security and Medicare remain largely untouched.

Devolution increased in popularity because many politicians thought federal grants had been improperly used to impose the interests of the federal government on the individual states. Through devolution, the federal government instead provides large block grants, or blocks of money, to the states to be used for specific social programs. Unlike in previous years, the states have broad discretion to implement the programs as they best see fit. The federal government is still involved but mostly only monitors the progress and outcomes of the projects.

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