Unfunded Mandates: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is an Unfunded Mandate?
  • 1:10 Examples
  • 2:42 Reforming Unfunded Mandates
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn what defines an unfunded congressional mandate, understand how they impact state government, and gain insight into why they are often controversial.

What Is an Unfunded Mandate?

In the United States, when the federal government imposes new regulations or expectations on state or private entities, they have enacted what are known as federal mandates. These mandates tend to be done in the interest of public safety, equality, or fairness. Often times, when the government implements these new requirements, they offer funding or resources so that the burden doesn't fall entirely on the state or business required to make a change.

When the government imposes new regulations or expectations but doesn't provide financial assistance or resources, it is what is known as an unfunded mandate. For example, when Congress passed the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966, they mandated that automobile manufacturers begin installing certain safety features in their cars in order to comply with the requirements of the new law. Because they didn't offer any financial assistance to manufacturers that would help with the costly changes, the act is an example of an unfunded mandate. Unfunded mandates are often controversial because they require states or companies to change their practices or products, but expect that they do so without any financial assistance from the government.


Beginning in the 1950s, the federal government began to impose unfunded mandates in order to ensure that racial minorities were being treated fairly in society. For example, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required certain states to change the way they operated their voting process, in order to ensure that African Americans were being given the opportunity to vote. These changes included monitors over the process that ensured that voters were not being denied their right and that votes were being accurately counted. These changes were required by law, and it was expected that the states would have to use their own money to implement them.

With the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, Congress imposed new laws on the individual states that prohibited the sale of alcohol to minors. This required states to pay out of their own budget for the creation of new advertising materials, legal processes, and licensing for retailers. Because the states are required to implement and enforce this law without any financial assistance from the government, it is considered an unfunded mandate.

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