Skip to main content

Marble Cake Federalism

Last Updated: 2006

“Marble cake federalism” is a bakery metaphor often used to describe the model of cooperative federalism. This model of federalism holds that the local, state, and national governments do not act in separate spheres, but instead have interrelated policy goals and administrative duties.

The metaphor originated in an early 1950’s pamphlet authored by Joseph E. McLean. The concept was more fully developed by Morton Grodzins in Goals for Americans, a book published in 1960 as an overview of The Report of the President’s Commission on National Goals. In his chapter on the federal system, Grodzins noted, “The American form of government is often, but erroneously, symbolized by a three-layer cake. A far more accurate image is the rainbow or marble cake. . . . As colors are mixed in the marble cake, so functions are mixed in the American federal system.”

Although Grodzins believed that a system of dual federalism never existed in the United States, other theorists contend that marble cake federalism came into existence during the New Deal era of the 1930’s. It was during this time that the Democratic majority was able to develop a variety of social welfare and public works programs. As these public policies were developed, the national, state, and local governments built administrative relationships to execute the programs.

Politically, the national government played a supporting role to the states and localities prior to the 1960’s because the three levels of government had comparable goals. However, this changed during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential administration when the state and local governments often held goals that conflicted with the national government’s civil rights agenda.

From a public administration standpoint, the model of marble cake federalism leads to the development of more efficient government programs. Because each type of government has its own constituency, different interests and perspectives become involved in the policy process. In addition, when state and local interests are represented in congressional hearings, their needs and concerns are taken into account when legislation is passed and the guidelines for grants-in-aid are developed.

SEE ALSO: Cooperative FederalismLayer Cake Federalism


Morton Grodzins, “The Federal System,” in Goals for Americans (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960); Paul E. Peterson, The Price of Federalism (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1995); and Deil S. Wright, “Policy Shifts in the Politics and Administration of Intergovernmental Relations, 1930s–1990s,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 509 (May 1990): 11–30.