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In the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858, Senator Douglas stated “If the people of any other territory desire slavery, let them have it. If they do not want it, let them prohibit it. It is their business, not mine.”
These comments summarize America’s long battle with the states’ rights position. Since the days of the Federalist Papers, this nation has vacillated between centralized policies that guarantee equal protections across all 50 states, and the freedom for states to do as they choose. For the poor and disenfranchised, this ideology has always left them unprotected, forgotten, and victimized.
- The states’ rights argument was used in the 1860s to justify southern secession from the Union in defense of slavery.
- The states’ rights argument was used in the 1930s to justify resistance against certain New Deal reforms.
- The states’ rights argument was used in the 1960s to justify denying the progress of the Civil Rights movement.
- The states’ rights argument was used up until the 1970s to justify denying the creation of a federal Department of Education.
- The states’ rights argument was used in the early 2000s to justify the federal government’s weak response to Hurricane Katrina.
- The states’ rights argument is being used currently to justify allowing for wholesale voter suppression across the nation.
It is no secret that the quality of housing, education, and public safety citizens receive depends heavily on the state in which they live. Southern states are drastically poorer than those in the north. And while a combination of factors contributes to these disparities, these states should not be left to fend for themselves. What impacts one impacts us all.
The spread of the COVID-19 virus is the most significant economic and social crisis of my lifetime. Yet in the face of this, currently, 10 states have failed to pass stay-in-place orders for their residents. President Trump has stated that is he is reticent to force compliance.
Consequently, responses to this tragedy in unemployment benefits, housing, and food provisions vary drastically across the nation. This must change. In times of great peril, the entire nation relies on the federal government to use its unparalleled resources to mobilize and save lives quickly. In every historic situation just mentioned, it was the federal government that averted disaster. Crisis leaves no room for the states’ rights ideology. It must be rejected in fighting the novel coronavirus if we are to mount an effective response to this international pandemic.
As a part of the stimulus package, the federal government has put in place payroll protections through the Small Business Administration. These are a step in the right direction, however, they leave workers unnecessarily unprotected. The response of many employers to the economic challenges we currently face has been to downsize. Close to a million people were laid off last month and there were 6.6 million unemployment claims just last week, the most in U.S. history. Unemployment systems, run primarily at the state level, are overwhelmed. Cases are well reported of people who have sat on the phone for hours and reached no one. Mortgage companies are left to create their own solutions, many providing only limited borrower deferment plans which require full repayment at the end of a 3-month period.
By allowing for states to create their own stay-in-place orders, their own unemployment and welfare responses, and their own rules on social distancing, we leave too much to chance. People’s lives are at stake. Looking at the centralized responses of nations like South Korea, Germany, Denmark, Great Britain, and Canada, it is clear what is possible. The federal government should step in immediately and create a national shelter-in-place policy, national rent and mortgage freezes, and monthly cash payments to citizens. Anything short of this assures that many will fall through the cracks. Their lives depend on our collective response.
Christ elevated compassion as the essential quality of this life. Our existence will ultimately be judged by how we treat “the least of these.” He rarely taught spiritual principles without providing physical charity. If judgment for the individual will be based on this, does this sentiment extend to societies? To nations? If the federal government has the ability to protect the lives and well-being of millions, how can it be seen as anything but negligent or downright evil to avoid doing so? It is time for those with power to exert it in a comprehensive and visionary manner that alleviates suffering and protects the most vulnerable. The time to act is now.
Written by Ted Williams
Edited by Jeanette Vietti
Encyclopedia Britannica: Lincoln-Douglas Debates
America Battlefield Trust: States’ Rights
The New York Times: F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Plan