logoTexarkana - between two states

How united are the States?

In some ways, they are very disunited.

You are here :  ›  Federal and local differences

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 federal constitution. 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.
Temple in Utah
The temple at the heart of Salt Lake City, Utah, seems a long way away from the casinos of Las Vegas (below)
    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, individual 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.
slots at las vegas
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 levels.
    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.


    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 has had the effect of affirming the role of government, not denying or reducing it."
    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 Pennsylvania.
    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).


Hôtels throughout the USA
A great selection at best rates from  Booking.com

 Los Angeles
 San Francisco
 New York
    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 over 5°, 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 government.
    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 of Texarkana, (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. 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".

    Marriage. This is another field where individual states have their own leg­islation.
    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 girls.
    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 Lee Lewis 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 has most daily contact with citizens.
    Another major federal program that is present in every community in the  USA is 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 is run 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 present 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     A Background to modern America -  people, places and events  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 to today's USA.  Twenty-two texts, with vocabulary guides and exercises.

For California, discover About-California.com, a short guide for visitors.

About-the-usa.com   Home page 

Photo top of page. In the city of Texarkana, the state line runs through the city which is half in Texas, half in Arkansas.  Liquor laws, taxes and employment laws on one side of the street differ from those on the other side of the street

Other places, other countries...

Partner websites

Institutions, life and tourism
  • About France - a thematic guide to France. Over 200 pages of information for visitors and students.
  • About Britain - a thematic introduction to Britain covering institutions, life and tourism
  • Angleterre.org.uk - Le guide de l'Angleterre, en français

Travel and tourism
Text © About-the-usa.com

About :  About-the-usa.com is a Travel-Webs site

To contact this website please use the form provided.

Photo credits.
Top of page. Texarkana photo by Michqel Barera, Creative commons 2 licence
Salt Lake City photo by Pick-ee.

About-the-usa.com respects your privacy and does not collect data from users. Cookies are used solely to log anonymous audience statistics and to enable essential page functions. To remove this message, click   or otherwise learn more about setting cookie preferences