Responsibilities of Federal, State and Local Government

Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments in the U.S. directly impact the lives of people. Activities examine the functions of state and local governments in two areas: 1) COVID-19 vaccination policies and the historic 1905 Jacobson v. Massachusetts court case; 2) government bans on single-use plastic items and other steps to save the environment. Media literacy activities explore the role of trusted messengers in delivering pandemic policies to people and communities and the use of social media for environmental campaigns.

Standard 6.7: Responsibilities of Federal, State and Local Government

Contrast the responsibilities of government at the federal, state and local levels. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T6.7]

There are many governments in United States, including

Each of these different levels of government have different roles and responsibilites within the U.S. political system.

Modules for this Standard Include:

  1. INVESTIGATE: The Functions of State and Local Government
  2. UNCOVER: A History of Vaccinations and the Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) Court Case
    • SPECIAL TOPIC BOX: The Polio Epidemic and Vaccines
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: Trusted Messengers, the Media and the Pandemic
  3. ENGAGE: What Single-Use Plastic Items Should Local Governments Ban to Help Save the Environment?
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: Environmental Campaigns Using Social Media

    1. INVESTIGATE: The Functions of State and Local Government

    Local, tribal, and territorial governments in the United States plan and pay for most roads, run public schools, provide water, organize police and fire services, establish zoning regulations, license professions, and arrange elections for their citizens.  

    Local governments work in connection with state government, and sometimes those governments do not agree politically. Pandemic public health policies, sanctuary city declarations, all gender restrooms, minimum wage laws, fracking policies, ride-hailing company regulations, and red light cameras at traffic lights are a few examples where local and state governments may disagree. Disagreements are furthered by the fact that most states are controlled by Republicans while most cities (where two-thirds of all Americans live) are controlled by Democrats.

    Legally and constitutionally, state governments have power over local governments.

    Read the Massachusetts Laws that go into effect in 2023.

    Public Health, Vaccines and the Pandemic

    Vaccines are "injections" (shots), liquids, pills, or nasal sprays you take to teach the immune system to recognize and defend against harmful germs" (U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2021).

    The COVID-19 pandemic generated intense political debates over whether state, local, or national governments can mandate vaccinations as well as require face masks and/or social distancing as public health policies that everyone must follow. From the outset of the pandemic, there has been intense opposition to requiring individuals to get COVID-19 vaccinations by a number of Republican governors and right-wing political groups. Texas Governor Greg Abbott banned mask and vaccine mandates throughout the state while South Carolina and Arizona banned mask mandates in schools.

    The federal government cannot mandate vaccinations for the general public, but state governments have the authority to do, particularly for health workers, essential employees, and public schoolchildren because states are required to "provide for the public health, safety, and morals" (An Overview of State and Federal Authority to Impose Vaccination Requirements, Congressional Research Service, May 22, 2019).

    During the pandemic, neither states nor the federal government have mandated COVID vaccinations for all citizens, although some private employers have done so. 

    In 2021, every state mandated vaccines for children and adults (The New York Times, September 14, 2021). To attend school, children are required to be vaccinated for diseases such as flu, measles, mumps, and rubella. Other vaccination policies vary from state to state; you can go here for State School and Childcare Vaccination Laws. No state as of June 2021 is requiring children to have a COVID-19 vaccine to attend school.

    By summer 2021, amidst the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, California, New York, and New York City began requiring all government workers to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. More than 600 colleges and universities required students returning to fall 2021 classes to be vaccinated (Key Questions about COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates, KFF, April 2021). So did many private companies including Google, Facebook, Uber, Netflix, and Delta Air Lines (Gostin, 2021).

    The question of whether private employers can require employees to be vaccinated remains unsettled an legal and public policy issue. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that employers can order employees to be vaccinated before returning to face-to-face work. In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to have an employment policy "that an individual shall not pose a direct threat the health or safety of individuals in the workplace," a provision that supports vaccine mandates.

    Many companies have chosen to offer incentives and rewards for employees rather than threaten loss of one's job for not getting vaccinated. Incentives include free food and drinks, tickets to amusement parks, paid time off, cash rewards; Major League Baseball offered free tickets to games in June 2021.

    States have acted legislatively on both sides of the required vaccine issue. Some states have chosen to offer prizes and even entry into vaccination lotteries to people who voluntarily get vaccinated; Ohio is giving 5 one million dollar prizes to people who get vaccinated. Montana, by contrast, passed a bill prohibiting employers from requiring employees be vaccinated and the governor issued an executive order against the use of "vaccine passports" (NPR, May 28, 2021).

    Political party affiliation did impact people's vaccination decisions, and the consequences were stark. In one study, Republican voters in counties in Florida and Ohio with lower vaccination rates had death rates that were 43% higher than rates among Democratic voters (JAMA Network, July 24, 2023; NPR, July 25, 2023).

    Throughout 2020 and 2021, some local governments defied emergency health restrictions set by states and implemented their own local health policies despite state orders not to do so. In one notable 2020 case, in the state with the lowest coronavirus numbers in the country, the Stamford Vermont town select board voted to "terminate" the state governor's face-mask requirements, quarantine rules, and family and public gathering restrictions. The select board's 3 to 2 majority claimed the governor's orders violated the town's constitutional right to opt-out of emergency declarations. Similar examples of disputes between different levels of government happened throughout the country during the pandemic.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Explore Preemption Conflicts
      • Review the article Preemption conflicts between state and local governments.
      • Select a topic (e.g., firearms, fracking, GMOs, labor and wages, LGBT, plastic bags, housing, soda taxes).
      • Conduct research to examine the state and local views on the topic.
      • Create a video or podcast to present your opinion about whether the state or local government should have the power to address that topic. 
    • Debate (in-person, on social media, or on Flipgrid)
      • Should States Dictate that Student Athletes Can Be Paid to Play College Sports? 
        • In 2019, the state of California passed the Fair Pay to Play Act. Scheduled to go into effect in 2023, this law allows college athletes to earn money from uses of their names, images and likenesses. As Sports Illustrated reported, “this act guarantees college athletes a right to profit from their identities” (McCann, 2019). Similar measures are being proposed in other states around the country.
        • Proponents of the Fair Pay to Play Act, including NBA stars LeBron James and Draymond Green as well as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, believe this legislation will address gross inequities in college sports where coaches, universities, and television networks make huge amounts of money while athletes receive no compensation. 
        • Opponents including the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) contend that this law will ruin the college sports by making professionals out of amateur athletes. They also contend California schools will have an unfair advantage in recruiting the best players over schools in the states that do not allow athletes to be paid.
      • What are the arguments for and against the Fair Pay to Play Act? Would you vote to adopt or reject this law?

      2. UNCOVER: A History of Vaccinations and the Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) Court Case

      Broadly speaking, communities do not have the right to defy a state public health order, as established by the 1905 Jacobson v. Massachusetts Supreme Court decision discussed in the UNCOVER section for this standard. However, as the American Bar Association points out, "In judging a governor’s or local official’s authority to exercise such powers under the 10th Amendment, Supreme Court decisions require a “compelling governmental interest” be shown and evidence that the action has been narrowly tailored to achieve that interest."

      Special Topic Box: The Polio Epidemic and Vaccines

      Polio was one of the 20th century’s most feared diseases. A virus that spreads through people-to-people contact (nasal and oral secretions as well as contact with contaminated feces), polio left many people temporarily paralyzed, and in some cases, disabled for life. It mainly affected children under five-years-old. Summer, with its warm weather, was considered “polio season.”

      Salk Polio Vaccine plaque, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
      Salk Polio Vaccine plaque by Daderot | Public Domain

      Present in human populations for thousands of years, Polio reached epidemic proportions in the United States after 1894 (History of Polio, College of Physicians of Philadelphia). Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd President, was diagnosed with the disease in 1921 at age 39 and it shaped the rest of his private and public life (FDR and Polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum). However, other researchers contend that he suffered from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, not polio. The 1952 Polio Epidemic was the worst in U.S. history - 58,000 cases, 3,145 deaths, 21,269 left disabled (Polio Fact Sheet, Pennsylvania Department of Health). 

      In 1955, a polio vaccine became available following the efforts of many researchers. Jonas Salk led an effort (funded by the March of Dimes organization) to inject 2 million children in the United States. His vaccine proved effective against the disease as did a competing oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin and tested in the Soviet Union. Go to this book for more on the history, Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio, Jeffrey Kluger (2004).

      Vaccinating schoolchildren for the Salk trials was an unprecedented undertaking, noted historian David M. Oshinsky (2005), requiring the cooperation of 14,000 principals, 50,000 teachers, and untold numbers of family members to vaccinate 1.3 million youngsters in a single year. Local parent/teacher groups held meetings with nurses and medical professionals while movies and film strips emphasized the importance of the research. As with COVID-19 vaccines today, there was skepticism and outright disinformation. Walter Winchell, a national radio personality, said the Salk vaccine may be a killer - spreading fear and vaccine hesitancy. Many families withdrew from the trials. Still the trials went forward to success. You can watch Unconditional Surrender, a 1956 film about the Polio vaccine on YouTube.

      Watch on YouTube

      Polio was declared eliminated in the United States in 1979. Nevertheless, it is still strongly recommended that children receive polio vaccines at 2 months, 4 months, and 6-18 months of age and a booster shot between 4 and 6 years-old.

      A Brief History of Vaccinations and Inoculations

      Vaccinations and inoculations as a public health policy are not new historically in this country. In the 1720s in colonial Boston, the religious leader Cotton Mather campaigned for inoculation against smallpox, and faced threats including an attempted bombing of his home. Mather had learned about smallpox inoculation from Onesimus, a enslaved man from West Africa who received a small dose of the disease as a way to gain immunity from it.

      In the 1730s, as smallpox swept through Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin lost his young son to the disease. He became an outspoken advocate of inoculations (see Benjamin Franklin & Inoculation clip from Ken Burns). During the Revolutionary War, George Washington required soldiers in the colonial army to get a smallpox vaccination. 

      Watch on YouTube

      In 1809, the town of Milton became the first Massachusetts community to offer free smallpox vaccinations. The town of Milton’s action was followed that same year by a state law requiring smallpox vaccination, making Massachusetts the first state in the nation to promote the use of vaccination as a public health policy. Since then, advances in medical science have enabled physicians to use vaccinations to treat previously incurable diseases, including Avian Cholera (1879); Rabies (1885); Polio (1955); Measles (1963), and Mumps (1967) (Vaccine History: Developments by Year, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia).

      Nurse Immunizing Girl
      Nurse immunizing young girl in dress in the1930s, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, No Restrictions

      In a landmark case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws, confirming the "state's duty to guard and protect . . . the safety and health of the people." Wrote the Court, “Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members” (quoted in Face-Covering Requirements and the Constitution, Price & Diaz, American Constitution Society, June 2, 2020).

      Today kindergarten through 12th grade students in every state and the District of Columbia are required to be vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella; children in Massachusetts must be immunized with DTaP/Tdap, polio, MMR, Hepatitis B, and Varicella vaccines. Mandatory vaccinations for public school students are based on a 1922 Supreme Court ruling in the case Zucht v. King. Religious and medical exemptions are granted to individuals and families in a small number of cases.

      Masks and Face-Coverings

      Requiring mask wearing during public health emergencies has long been a highly contested government policy. During the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, there were mask-wearing ordinances, particularly in states in the western part of the United States, including the cities of San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Sacramento, Denver, Indianapolis, and Pasadena. Masks were of poor quality by today's standards; people wore gauze or other similarly light fabrics (learn more: The Flu in San Francisco from PBS American Experience).

      Georgia Tech football game 1918 during Spanish Flu
      Georgia Tech football game 1918 during Spanish Flu by Thomas Carter, public domain

      Though enforcement of mask-wearing rules was relatively lax, there were citations and fines. There was also organized resistance, including the Anti-Mask League of 1919. For more on this hidden history, explore "The Mask Slackers of 1918," The New York Times (August 3, 2020).

      In 2020, opposition to mask-wearing became a centerpiece of Donald Trump's unsuccessful campaign for a second term as President. Groups across the country opposed mask-mandates - citing disruption for businesses and violations of personal liberties. In some places, reactions were extreme - there were credible threats against the life of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for her responses to the pandemic in that state.

      Can the President or Congress enact a nationwide mask mandate? The independent Congressional Research Service concluded Yes (August 6, 2020), each branch has authority to do so, although the political will may not be there for this to happen. At present, mask-wearing essentially depends on people's willingness to cooperate with requests to do so. As of December 2, 2020, 37 states have mandated face covering in public - meaning both public indoor and outdoor spaces.

      Left undecided is what to do with those who choose not to comply with mask mandates. There could be fines for individuals not wearing face covering or fines and suspensions for businesses that serve customers without masks. Such penalties exist already for individuals caught not wearing seat belts or not observing smoking bans or businesses who sell alcohol or cigarettes to underage buyers.

      Media Literacy Connections: Trusted Messengers, the Media and the Pandemic

      Since the power of governments to compel vaccination is limited, public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the President, began emphasizing trusted messengers as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19 by increasing vaccinations among unvaccinated groups. A trusted media messenger is a person or organization that people respect, believe, and will follow its recommendations. In July, the 18-year-old actress and singer Olivia Rodrigo joined the President to urge young people (at the time only 42% of those 18 to 24 were fully vaccinated) to get their shots.

      Tweet of President Biden and Olivia Rodrigo putting on sunglasses together in the oval office with description: Thanks for stopping by, Olivia, and for using your voice to urge young people to get vaccinated. If we all do our part and get the COVID-19 vaccine, we can defeat this virus once and for all. Let’s do this.
      Tweet from @POTUS account

      People do listen to someone they trust, including family members, friends, local community leaders, pastors or priests, celebrities, doctors, and even television or radio personalities. But there is no single source of trusted information about the virus and vaccinations whose advice most people will follow.

      Who are your trusted messengers about the pandemic?

      In this activity, you will examine the media messages of different individuals and organizations in your school and community to assess how they are seeking to influence people’s thinking and behaviors. Then, you will propose ways to deliver trusted messages to young people. 

      Suggested Learning Activity

      • Evaluate and Respond
        • Evaluate the vaccine/mask-mandate stance of local and state officials as well as the administrators of the school you attend.
        • Then write a letter of PRAISE or PROTEST (or create a PSA) based on your findings.
      • Write a Public Policy Memo
        • After exploring the online resources for the history of pandemics and vaccines listed in the section below, consider the following:
          • Should a local, state, or federal government have the power to require people to get a COVID-19 vaccine?
          • Should students in schools be required to receive such a vaccine?
          • What response should schools take if students or their families refuse vaccinations?
        • Turn your public policy memo into an animated whiteboard video using the Explain Everything or ShowMe apps.

        Online Resources on the History of Pandemics and Vaccines

        3. ENGAGE: What Single-Use Plastic Items Should Local Governments Ban to Help Save the Environment?

        “Plastic pollution is not just an oceans issue. It’s a climate issue and it’s a human health issue” (Claire Arkin quoted in How Plastics Contribute to Climate Change, Bauman, 2019, para. 2).

        Plastics are everywhere, negatively impacting human and animal life, food supplies, and environmental habitats. Making, using, and incinerating plastics uses up finite fossil fuels, increases greenhouse gas emissions, fills up landfills, increases the number of pollutants in the air, and harms or kills animals.

        The scale of plastics world-wide is incredibly huge. It is estimated one million plastic bottles are sold every minute in the world today, and less than one-third of them are recylced (Boston Globe Magazine, January 21, 2024, p. 6).

        Plastics can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, meaning every piece of plastic that ever been made is still with us (Recorder, January 4, 2023, p. B1).

        plastic bottles, plastic straws and other plastic waste
        Plastic Waste by stux is licensed under Pixabay License

        Climate experts, including the 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agree that urgent governmental action—nationally, internationally, and locally—is needed to try and reverse the effects of human impact on the environment.

        People, as well as governments, are concerned about climate change and global warming. A 2018 study by researchers from Yale University and George Mason University found that "seven in ten Americans (73%) think global warming is happening, an increase of ten percentage points since March 2015; six in ten understand it is human-caused" (Climate Change in the American Mind, p. 3).

        National Geographic reports that nearly half the plastic ever made has been produced since 2000, while less than a fifth of plastic trash is recycled (Parker, 2018). Worldwide, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, 91% of which are not recycled (Nace, 2017). In the United States, one billion toothbrushes (most of which are plastic and not biodegradable) are discarded every year (Goldberg, 2018). 

        In 2022, the United Nations Environmental Assembly passed the first legally-binding international agreement to end plastic pollution fully by 2024.

        Local and state governments across the United States are establishing rules and regulations about single-use plastic containers as one way to begin addressing climate change.

        In Massachusetts, the Legislature is debating a state-wide single-use ban for retail businesses; there are exceptions in the legislation for customers getting medicine or purchasing frozen food. Many cities and towns in the state have already done, including Hadley, a town in western Massachusetts that prohibited one-time use plastic bags and plastic straws beginning on January 1, 2023. That same year, fifth graders from an elementary school in Amherst testified at a legislative hearing in support of a bill to ban single-use plastic bags in retail stores throughout the state.

        What actions would you propose be taken by governments, businesses, individuals, and communities to limit the impacts of plastic pollution?

        Oregon Plastic Bag Ordinance
        Portland, Oregon Plastic Bag Ordinance, by Tony Webster, licensed under CC BY 2.0

        More Government Actions to Address Climate and Environment

        National, state and local governments are taking multiple steps to respond to additional aspects of the climate and environment crisis:

        Which of these actions do you think will be most effective and why?

        Media Literacy Connections: Environmental Campaigns Using Social Media

        Environmental and climate justice organizations make extensive use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and many other social media platforms to communicate their ideas for sustainability and change to wide audiences. For instance, take a look at The Majestic Plastic Bag video from Heal the Bay, which has nearly 3 million views, and the Shorty Social Good Awards, which feature several social media campaigns that successfully "promote, protect, and preserve our environment" (para. 1).

        However, while environmental and climate justice organizations put funding into media production and social media initiatives to create change and spread awareness, local and state governments rarely do the same.

        How can you help your local or state government promote one of their environmental policies so that it gains momentum? 

        In this activity, you will serve as a digital media expert who is tasked with improving your local or state government's use of multimedia and social media for environmental policies. 

        Watch on YouTube

        Suggested Learning Activities

        • Write a Public Policy Brief
          • Compose a public policy brief for a new environmental policy that local or state governments should enact.
            • Provide evidence of the problem, policies currently in place, alternative approaches, and your preferred recommendation for change.
          • Turn your brief into an animated whiteboard video using the Explain Everything or ShowMe apps.

        • Discuss and Debate:
          • Which of the following single-use products would you support banning or limiting in an effort to reduce plastic waste?
            • Plastic water bottles
            • Plastic packaging and containers
            • Styrofoam containers
            • Plastic utensils
            • Plastic packing straps
            • Sandwich bags
            • Plastic Wrap
            • Baby diapers

        • Research 
          • Would a fee-per-bag (paper or plastic bag) policy encourage more retail store customers to bring their own reusable bags when they shop?

        • Civic Action Project
          • Calculate the costs of eco-friendly school supplies for your classroom.
          • Write or create a video proposal to persuade your school administrators to purchase eco-friendly school supplies. Share your proposal with local government officials to persuade them to enact eco-friendly laws. 
          • Eco-Friendly is defined as “vegan, plastic-free, sustainable and/or re-usable” (Murray-Ragg, 2018).
          • Example eco-friendly school materials are:
            • Stainless Steel Boxes
            • Reusable Cardboard Shoeboxes
            • Canvas Bags
            • Lead-free biodegradable pencils
            • Solar-powered corn plastic calculator
            • Bamboo ruler
            • Paper supplies made from 100% post-consumer waster paper and non-toxic soy-based inks
            • Sugarcane paper notebooks
            • Beeswax crayon sticks
            • Biodegradable pens
            • Bamboo pens
            • Natural grass pens
            • Note: Natural grass pens are made from natural meadow grass and BPA-free plastics.  BPA is the name for Bisphenol A, an industrial chemical found in polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins which can seep from products into food and beverages. Sugarcane paper is made from leftover sugarcane pulp.

        Online Resources for Environmental Action and Climate Justice

        Standard 6.7 Conclusion

        The nation’s federal, state, local, tribal and territorial governments have overlapping and sometimes competing goals and policies. INVESTIGATE examined the responsibilities of government at the state and local levels. UNCOVER looked at the history of Massachusetts state government efforts to mandate vaccinations. ENGAGE asked students to consider the roles local governments can and should play in reducing plastic consumption, waste, and pollution.

        This content is provided to you freely by Equity Press.

        Access it online or download it at https://equitypress.org/democracy/responsibilities.