Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2021


Oxford University Press

Source Publication

Publius: the Journal of Federalism

Source ISSN



The architecture of fiscal federalism in the United States represents an obstacle for prompt and comprehensive policy responses to economic crises, especially by subnational levels of government. As both a public health and economic crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has put unique fiscal pressures on subnational governments. This article reviews the pandemic’s fiscal effects on these governments, as well as the federal government’s response. By comparing the response to the COVID-19 crisis during the Trump administration with the response to the Great Recession during the Obama administration, we show that while the speed and magnitude of federal aid was unprecedented in 2020, it was nevertheless conditional in nature and beset by familiar political and institutional obstacles. Despite major fiscal pressures, state revenues rebounded earlier than expected, in part due to the relaxation of public health measures and the collection of taxes from online transactions; yet, state resources remained strained throughout the year, especially in states reliant on the hospitality and the oil sectors. And while local property taxes were buoyed by a surging housing market, cities and counties were confronted with declining revenue from other sources and intense emergency spending needs. Thus, despite unprecedented levels of federal support for state and local governments, the legacies of “fend for yourself” federalism live on.


Accepted version. Publius: the Journal of Federalism, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Summer 2021): 365-395. DOI. © 2021 Oxford University Press. Used with permission.

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