Local Policy Responses To Federal Changes May Mean More Inequality

"There's a sense that mayors are now going to be the first line of resistance to Trump policies," said Amy Liu, Vice President and Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution in a phone interview. She was referring to sanctuary city policies specifically and the collection of mayors who have said that they will uphold sanctuary city policies in their jurisdictions regardless of federal threats to cut funding. This tension goes into other policy areas as well, such as climate change, where most recently, Governor Jerry Brown noted in a speech that if the federal government stops the work it is doing on climate change, California will disregard that decision and continue the work on its own.

These disagreements pave the path for local entities--cities, counties, and states--to take on policy decisions in a way that may be different from federal policy once a new administration is in place. However, those responses are in reaction to what happens at the federal level, which for now remains unclear. "We don't know that we don't know, in terms of what this new administration will look like," said Joseph Simitian, County Supervisor for District 5 in Santa Clara. "One thing that seems unlikely is business as usual."

The scene is set for a push-and-pull that includes many factors, such as funding, to determine what a local response may look like for different policy areas. Though sanctuary city policies may be one area where jurisdictions can implement a non-cooperative stance against the federal government, that may be tougher to do for other policy areas such as social services, housing, and healthcare. "...The biggest concern that cities are going to face under this administration is the weakening of the safety net for low-income families across the board," said Liu. "This is where we're going to be really tested on the extent to which cities and metropolitan areas really can go it alone," Liu added.

The reality is that local jurisdictions cannot take on all governance on their own. "Certain responsibilities, such as providing a basic standard of living for households absolutely cannot be borne jurisdiction by jurisdiction," Liu said. Professor Ron Hayduck at San Francisco State University added that with regard to sanctuary city policies, the threat to cut funding is a serious but vague one. Which funding pools does the administration plan to withhold and under what criteria are questions that remain. He noted that simply within the sanctuary city policies, there are various levels of implementation: what a region means by sanctuary, what the local policy is with regard to interaction with the federal government, and how much pushback a region is willing to engage in. "The scope of what each level of government could do in relation to each other is in the details," he noted.

Those details remain few and far in between, leaving local areas in limbo. Parts of the country are preparing for what may come. Santa Clara County for example, recently created a Federal Affairs Advisory Taskforce, for which Simitian will serve as chair. "Part of the role of this taskforce, in my view, is getting a feel for what the new DC cares about and will respond to," noted Simitian. "The plan is to cooperate and collaborate with our four members of Congress and to work with them in identifying opportunities for engagement and how we can position ourselves for what will be a different environment at the federal level," Simitian said.

The goal is to create an avenue for conversation. Ultimately, governance and the nuts and bolts of running a country, such as good schools, reliable roads, secure jobs, and balanced budgets take precedence at the local level. "My experience working with cities and regions is that partisanship goes away the more local you get," Liu said. "I think there's a lot of uncertainty for sure, being in this environment right now with the new president and Congress. But what I am very certain about is that cities and metropolitan areas constantly innovate. They sit and work together, they figure out solutions, and they're very practically focused on outcomes because their citizens expect it," she added.

"We've got to be prepared to find common ground if and when we can," noted Simitian. "And when we can't, we've got to go toe-to-toe with the administration and Congress." The question this raises is the extent to which all jurisdictions across the United States can take on this level of preparation and how much variance we will see in policy because each local jurisdiction is responding in its own way.

Liu gave the example of minimum wage, noting that in the absence of the federal government creating a floor for earnings, cities and states stepped in and passed their own legislation. The result is that we see different minimum wages across the country, which contribute to varying levels of inequality, depending on other factors such as cost of living. That type of inequality could be perpetuated if jurisdictions are forced to make locally based decisions, which may vary within and among states.

"In the absence of federal actions," Liu said, "we are going to see a patchwork response from the state and local government and in some cases, it may create some inequalities between places. But I also think this may be the new reality." Simitian felt similarly. "I think that to the extent that federal funding is not forthcoming for programs and services, the ability of these funds to even out the impact of income inequality is going to be eliminated."

That's a terrifying prospect, considering that income inequality is already at an all-time high in the U.S. A patchwork of local responses threatens to exacerbate that inequality. States such as California may be able to undertake much of this work on their own because they have the economy, size, political will, and power to continue funding the types of programs that alleviate inequality. However, even within California, the response may not be uniform. California is a state with 58 counties, that spans 840 miles from Oregon to Mexico and as such, has very localized needs, funding abilities, and political backing within it. That naturally means a varied response. It also means that citizens across all California counties don't have access to the same resources. For those who may wonder why this is any different, the answer is simply that it isn't. However, if this course continues, we make the inaccessibility of resources much more explicit, rather than creating spaces and legislation that alleviate inequality. Furthermore, the checks and balances provided by a federal government working with state and local governments erodes, and adds to the inequality we are seeing now.

What remains to be seen is how much this type of governance will take hold under the new administration and whether the federal response will be one that answers the needs on the ground. "At some point," Simitian added, "ideological dogma will bump into the reality of people's daily needs. And elected officials at the federal level will have to confront that."

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the City and County of San Francisco.