IN HIS FIRST State of the Union address last night, President Reagan proposed a fundamental shift in the division of responsibility between federal and state governments. The issue here is the degree of local and regional variation in its basic social and civic standards that this country considers proper.
Mr. Reagan's plan appears to invite retrogression toward far wider inequities among states, with a massive withdrawal of federal authority and federal standards. He is correct in saying that the present webbing of rules drawn up in Washington, and the manifold conditions attached to the money sent from Washington, are sometimes inefficient and frequently annoying to state officials. But that is hardly the whole reality of the relationship, or even the greater part of it. To form a balanced judgment on this dubious plan, it is useful to recall the United States of a generation ago and the enormous disparities tolerated then between the standards of social protection in the poor states and the rich ones --or the generous ones. Many of those disparities have been greatly mitigated over the past several decades. In some considerable part it is the result of the great mobility of the American population, and the national development of the economy. But one crucial part of the explanation is the many kinds of federal money sent into the states with many kinds of federal requirements for the services that it supported.
Mr. Reagan doesn't think that a reversion to the practices of the bad old days would be a danger. With reforms like reapportionment and the Voting Rights Act, he said, community practices will genuinely represent community ideas of decency and good sense. In these matters Mr. Reagan tends to think in terms of the very creditable example of California, which has been a leader among the states in its concern for its citizens. But what about Texas, recently become quite rich and yet remaining remarkably mean in its treatment of the poor? Texas currently provides an indigent family of four the princely sum of $140 a month to live on. If there is no longer to be any federal money in, say, food stamps, the federal government is going to have trouble enforcing any limits on a state's inclination to cut back on them.
The case for national standards is both practical and moral. It would be grotesque to invite those states with a tradition of social conscience, like California and New York, to take disproportionate burdens of the nation's poverty as helpless people fled to them from the penury of the less generous.
There's a direct connection between poverty and bad health. Is it not strange to argue, as the Reagan plan does, that health programs are inherently a federal responsibility but poverty is not? It is also quite true that the resources of this country are not spread equally across the 50 states. Some have much greater capacity than others to support social welfare and education. It is not at all clear that this new definition of federalism will actually lead to any real simplification of government. It can save money only through a general decline of standards. It hardly seems to lead, however, toward anything like a more perfect union.