The (Less) United States: Federalism & Decentralization in the Era of COVID-19

How did the federal government and state governments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? The history of U.S. federalism suggests that the federal government will centralize in times of crisis, commandeering its states and setting specific economic and health precedents. Yet we argue that the U.S. federal government decentralized in response to the 2020 pandemic crisis, encouraging states to set their own economic and health standards. In this paper, we explore the federal government’s decentralized response to COVID-19, and chart states’ efforts at crisis mitigation. We find that great variation exists between states’ responses, variation that illustrates the “price of federalism,” with states offering their citizens very different responses to the COVID-19 crises, and worsening inequalities that predated the pandemic era.