- Life and
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A learner's guide to
discovering the United States
The United States is a
federal republic made up
of 50 States plus the federal district of Washington DC and some small
territories. On the international stage it is a single nation;
domestically is is a federation of states which each enjoy a
considerable degree of self government within the framework of the
What, in practical terms, does this signify?
The USA - a federation of dependent states
When you drive down Interstate 15 from
St. George Utah, to Las Vegas, Nevada, you do not pass any customs post
where you have to stop and show your identity card; you just
change your watch by one hour. You may get the feeling that you have
crossed into another country, but you have not. You are still in the
USA, though the atmosphere in cities is very different.
In place of the general
puritanism of Mormon Utah, here in Nevada you are surrounded by
casinos, bars, wedding
chapels and liquor stores .
Las Vegas has long been one of the
best-known examples of the way things can be quite different from one
American state to another. If the original Mormon settlers of 1855
could see Las Vegas today, they would turn in their graves.
The temple at the heart of
Salt Lake City, Utah, seems a long way away from the casinos of Las
At a time when most of the USA was ruled
by fairly strict puritanical laws, Nevada's liberal laws allowed Las
Vegas to develop into the raunchiest most dazzling casino city in
America. Very loose laws about residence and marriage meant that people
could fly or drive into Nevada, and get a quick marriage. To get
divorced, they only had to establish "residence" for 90 days (a
suitcase left in a hotel) and that was enough. Puritans in other states
could complain and protest, but there was nothing they could do. Nevada
laws were, and are, the final authority in Nevada, unless they are in
conflict with United States federal laws. And the same, of course, is
true for the laws of all the other states, within their own territory.
Today, Nevada is the only state in the
USA in which prostitution is legal – though this is only the case in
ten of the state's seventeen counties... not including Las Vegas.
Effectively, lawmakers in the state have decided that is neither up to
Washington nor to the State government of Nevada to legislate
on whether or not prostitution should be allowed; it is a matter best
left to local administrations.
The fact is that in many ways, the
states of the USA are anything but united. Within a general framework
established by federal law and upheld by the Supreme Court
States are free to make their own laws in most fields, including
taxation, alcohol consumption, and all kinds of social legislation.
States also run their own police forces, the only "national" police in
the USA being the FBI
(Federal Bureau of Investigation) whose fields of action
are limited to cases of national importance.
Casino in Las Vegas
Back in the 1980s, under the presidency
of Ronald Reagan (Republican), the powers devolved to individual states
were actually increased. Reagan promised to "get big
government off the backs" of Americans, by which he meant to
give more power to the individual states, and cut down on Washington's
importance as regards the day to day running of America.
To this day, there are plenty of
Americans who believe that "Washington"
should not be able to lay down
the law on how people live their lives across the whole nation – a
libertarian attitude that was strongly encouraged by Donald
Trump before, during and after his presidency.
Reagan's thinking was less libertarian
than economic. He believed that the federal government in Washington,
with all its programs in fields of social protection, health care, and
other taxation, was costing too much to administer, as well as
interfering too much in the day to day lives of Americans. States, he
believed, should be allowed to run their own affairs as they wanted.
The Republicans hoped that this would eventually lead to the
abandonment of layers of federal legislation such as minimum wage
While this has not happened, and there
is still a federally determined minimum wage in the USA, the
1980's saw the introduction of many measures designed to return
legislative power to the individual states, and reduce the role of
Washington in the running of everyday affairs. This was the "New Federalism".
In the event, many states used the
powers given to them under the new laws, in ways that were not planned
by the Reagan administration. By the time Reagan left office, ten
states had actually increased
the minimum wage from the federally imposed level of $3.35 per hour,
instead of abandoning it. In other fields; twenty states had legislated
to increase the pay of women in public sector jobs, and the staunchly
Democratic state of Massachusetts had actually passed a law obliging
employers to provide health insurance for their employees.... While the
provision of health care by employers is standard requirement
in most countries of Europe, it is still not mandatory in the USA for
firms with less than 50 employees, but states can legislate for
themselves in this field, as in many others.
POWER and MONEY
Of course, whoever says "power" means
"money"; and the question of who should have the power, Washington or
the individual states, has a lot to do with money.
Many American politicians, especially on
the Republican side, tend to have a fundamental dislike of taxation.
Taxation means taking people's money away from them, and
redistributing it for them to pay for essential services; and
while even the most radical Republicans accept that some forms of
taxation are essential, they do not like having to pay taxes, or having
to impose them. Certain American states, such as Florida, even have
laws forbidding the introduction of personal income tax
! Floridians pay no state income tax, though they must still
pay federal income tax to the Inland Revenue Service.
Reagan had believed that states would
reduce their spending, rather than raise taxes; but once again, things
did not turn out quite as expected. As American economist Aaron
Bernstein commented at the time, "To the horror of some conservatives,
a few states have even raised taxes to fund new programs. As a result, New Federalism
had the effect of affirming the role of government, not denying or
The fiscal powers devolved to individual
states are particularly noticeable in three areas; sales tax, the cost
of gasoline, and income tax. Sales Tax, the American equivalent of
Europe's VAT, varies from zero in five states, to a maximum of 7.25% in
California. One of the states with 0% sales tax is California's
neighbor, Oregon.... but Oregon does not take any great amount of
business away from California as a result. As for taxes on gasoline,
these vary from 9 cents a gallon in Alaska, to 61 cents a gallon in
As regards state income tax, this varies
from zero in eight states to a high of 13.3% on top earners
in California. (2023 figures).
PROHIBITION LIVES ON !
If you thought that "Prohibition" went
out with Al Capone in the 1930s, think again. One American state, Utah
(pronounced You-tor), still has strict government control over the sale
of all alcohol
and sixteen other states have a monopoly over the sale of some kinds of
alcoholic drinks. Curiously, most of the states that exercise control
on the sale of alcohol are among the most conservative states in
America, where people do not like being told what to do by the
Arkansas (pronounced Ark'nsor), like
most of the South, is heavily Protestant; more specifically heavily
Southern Baptist. Also the region, and this state in particular, is
poor, rural, conservative, insular and suspicious of liberal trends in
the rest of the country, particularly in Washington and California.
Even today (the 2020s), Arkansas has
very strict controls over the sale of alcohol, and about half of the
counties in the state are still officially "dry".
It is of course legal to possess alcohol
for private use anywhere in the state; the law also permits
the consumption of alcohol, but if you have above a certain quantity,
it is assumed to be for sale, and you may be breaking the state law.
Private clubs and other organizations such as the American Legion,
have licenses to sell alcohol.
The different laws enacted in different
counties and different states were for a while exemplified in the city
, (photo top
of page) which is half in Texas, half in Alabama. The border runs down
State Line Avenue, leaving liquor laws, taxes and employment laws on
one side of the street frequently different from those on the other
side of the street.
DEATH and MARRIAGE
One specific heritage of the Reagan years was a Supreme Court ruling
that has had major implications for politicians at state level. This
was the 1976 decision that allowed states to reintroduce the death penalty
which, until then,
had been abolished at a federal level.
While European countries have almost all
abolished the death penalty, a majority of U.S. states have
reintroduced it. By the 2020s, 27 US States had brought back the death
penalty as the ultimate sanction, but in three of these there is a
moratorium, and in eight states which allow the death penalty, it has
not been used at all in the past ten years. In 23 states, the death
penalty has been abolished.
The number of executions in the USA
peaked at 98 in the year 1999, but has since fallen well back to an
average of 17 per year since 2020
The use of people's lives as an
electioneering gimmick on a local level can only add force to the
argument that in some fields, clear and binding federal legislation is
still infinitely preferable to a maze of contradictory rules and
regulations varying from one state to the other, in the name of "power
to the people".
This is another field where individual states have their own
There has been a tendency in recent
decades for states to align their legislation concerning the minimum
age at which a person can marry, which is now 18 years for both sexes
in almost all states; in Nebraska however, the minimum legal age for
getting married is 19.
In most states young people can marry
from a younger age, generally from the age of 16, with parental
consent. However in Hawaii and Kansas, the minimum age with parental
consent is just 15, and in Mississippi it is just 15 years old for
Federal guidelines and the general
practices of other states have nevertheless removed most of the great
differences in the minimum ages of marriage between different states.
Back in the 1980s, Kansas and Mississippi, two states in the South,
allowed marriage, with judicial consent, of children as young as 12.
In 1958, 23-year old pop star Jerry
married his 13-year old cousin Myra Gayle Brown; that caused no
problems at first in the USA, as it was legal, but broke Lewis's
career when he and Myra came to England, and the British press
discovered Jerry had a 13 year old wife! (Film: Great Balls of Fire,
starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder)
Federal presence in daily life:
The federal agent that
the average US citizen sees most frequently in everyday life is the
mailman, the US Postal Service being the federal service that
most daily contact with citizens.
federal program that is present in every community in the USA
Social Security, a program that the US government uses to pay money to
older people who are retired, sick people who are too disabled to work,
and the families of workers who have died. Social Security
by the Social Security Administration, one of the largest government
agencies. As in other countries, Social Security is paid for by Social
Security contributions. Other federal agencies that are
throughout the USA include the offices of the Department of Agriculture
and the Department of Commerce. The National Parks Service
looks after hundreds recreation areas and historic areas
throughout the land.
Finally there is Amtrak
a federally-owned for-profit corporation, which runs most inter-city
passenger train services in the USA and owns a small part of the
railroad network too.
For more background to the USA.....
Book / ebook
Background to modern America
people, places and
that have played a significant role in the shaping of modern
America. A C1-level Advanced English reader for speakers of other
languages, and anyone wanting to learn some of the background
today's USA. Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and
For California, discover About-California.com
, a short