Monday, August 26, 2019

Vox explains why the drinking age is 21 all over the U.S.

As I observed today on Facebook and Dreamwidth, "Today marks 30 years of living in Michigan. I have now spent more than half my life in the Great Lakes State."  I've already reflected on the move in Leaving California and I haven't accrued many new insights during the intervening five years, so I'm going to celebrate the anniversary in a more indirect way with Vox's Why the US drinking age is 21.*  It's also a road story of sorts.

Why is the US drinking age 21? And how did it happen? In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards explores the history of the somewhat unusual way the drinking age became 21.
After prohibition — the total ban on alcohol — many states established a minimum legal drinking age of 21. But that began to change after the voting age was lowered to 18. Many states followed by lowering their drinking ages, which changed the landscape for the entire country.

By the 1980s, this unusual patchwork of drinking ages started to be seen as a problem, especially by activist organizations like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) and RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers). They lobbied for a 21-year-old minimum legal drinking age, and President Ronald Reagan supported the cause. His mechanism for enabling a national law? Threatening to withhold Federal Highway funding to states that didn’t comply.

It was an unpredictable strategy for an official typically hesitant to use federal power over the states, and the practice was eventually challenged in the Supreme Court, where it was upheld.

Beyond the political clash, it’s a look at how roads shape policy.
I knew that Louisiana was the last state to raise its drinking age.  I learned that when I was a grad student at the University of Michigan and the undergrads I taught told me about it.  It seems attracting people 18-20, especially college students on spring break, to Mardi Gras was too big an opportunity to pass up.  Until this video, I didn't know when that distinction ended.

I also tell my students a similar story about how the federal government induced states to pass mandatory seat belt laws.  The federal government has no direct power to tell people to buckle up.  However, it does have the power to withhold highway grant money to states that don't have seat belt laws.  As late as 2009, states were still considering whether to get more federal money by passing primary enforcement of seat belt laws.  Welcome to the power of the purse.

By the way, there is now a campaign to raise the age for buying tobacco to 21The American Lung Association has a map showing that it has succeeded in 18 states and the District of Columbia.  While I doubt the federal government can use the power of road funding to promote it, I have a feeling it will end up being the law in a majority of states by the end of the next decade.  If so, it might prompt the people who created this meme to change it to read "You can do these, but you cannot drink or smoke."

*Three days after being uploaded, it is still a trending video on YouTube, ranking #43 as I type this.


  1. Down here, the drinking age for bee-yah is 18. Not sure about hard liquor. I should know that. I could Oogle with less effort than it takes me to write this sentence, but one of the many pithy sayings that I like about Australian culture is "I can't be bothered." Sure there's teen stupidity as a result. But drongos gonna drong, no matter what the age limit...

    When you wrote about having lived more than half your life in MI, it made me think. I've been in the same flat for 6 years now, approximately 10% of my life. Wow! And between my two stints in Australia, that's 10 years -- 16% of my time on Earth has been in the Southern Hemisphere. I was 47 when my then-wife and I bailed on Amerika, so I'm getting close to one-fourth of my life being spent outside the borders of the Empire, and I was no young man when we left.

    (I wouldn't have been allowed to immigrate to Oz in 2005, being over 45 and therefore representing a potential burden to the national healthcare system, except my licensed bum-wiping and syringe-slinging prowess were on the national skills shortage list. So the .gov made an exception for me. One which has paid off pretty well for them so far, I might add. Productive worker and all that. Finally got my citizenship application filed a couple months ago; hoping it makes its way through the immigration bureaucracy faster than it went in Canada, where I left the country before my permanent residency was granted.)

    It's strange when one defines oneself as a person from "X" and then realises that they have been living in "Y" for long enough to have been more of a resident there than they were in their self-designated from-zone. Sad to say, but when I look back at where I resided longest, that would be Floriduh. One year as a yoof when my dad was stationed on an Air Force base there, and 16 freaking years at a single stretch (1987-2003) when I went down for my last news reporting job, had to change careers into nursing, and didn't leave until my second ex arm-twisted me to move to San Francisco. Not that that was AWFUL, because Fla. had stopped being the Sun Belt and morphed into The "Florida Man" State by then. But I owned such a nice little house, free and clear of a mortgage, and had all the work I needed...

    These days, I regard myself as a resident of my ideology, not a geography. Although the East Coast American accent will always mark me.

    1. I don't think a campaign like M.A.D.D. would be as successful down under as it was here for that reason.

      As for being someone who defined myself as a Californian but has been living in Michigan long enough to become native here, I can relate. Even when I move away -- my wife and I do not plan on retiring here -- should I ever do anything newsworthy, the local media will make a big deal of my having been a resident. I've seen it again and again.