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America Needs to Welcome Far More Ukrainian Refugees. Fiscal Federalism Can Pay for It.

The White House has taken the first step. It’s time for our governments at every level to underwrite a public-private “solidarity bridge” to host many more: up to a million refugees and wartime orphans.

A girl sits next to a stuffed bear as refugees from Ukraine wait in the main railway station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, near the Polish-Ukrainian border on March 24, 2022, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
(Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
The tragedy in Ukraine is immense and sickening. Americans almost universally want to help, even though the risk of nuclear war hangs over our heads as our political and military leaders in Washington grapple with the strategic challenges of aiding heroic, brave people. Given Ukraine’s remarkable military and popular resistance, nobody knows whether this will go on for weeks, months or years. A protracted multiyear stalemate is certainly conceivable.

Meanwhile, the number of refugees, evacuees and other displaced persons keeps mounting. Neighboring states of Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have shown genuine compassion by providing temporary shelter and necessities, much of it through nongovernmental organizations. But they are not capable of absorbing more multimillions of homeless refugees indefinitely, either physically or financially, even though the European Union is granting three-year havens.

The Biden administration has announced that the U.S. will admit 100,000 refugees, but that should be seen as just the start of our humanitarian response. The time has come for the U.S. to take in a far larger share of those who are fleeing Russian barbarism, and to deploy a federalist financial structure to underwrite it.

Otherwise, if Americans make only what’s perceived as a token effort, there will be resentment from citizens in Ukraine’s neighboring countries. One European leader has suggested a transatlantic “solidarity bridge” for refugees. An organization of U.S. veterans helping orphans has already sunk a footing at the other end of this unbuilt bridge. American leaders now need to think bigger and comprehensively, and this begins at the state and local level.

Sharing Our Homes

Here in America, we need to put aside the contentious debates about immigration and open our doors and our hearts to the homeless adult and orphaned Ukrainians who abruptly need to start a new life, or at least find places to survive until this horrid unprovoked war ends. U.S. leaders should announce that we’ll grant visas and share our homes — not just our motels — to welcome up to a million certified and fully vaccinated refugees. (For context, that’s about 2 1/2 percent of Ukraine’s population. Almost four million have fled the country to date, a third of them children. Altogether, 10 million have abandoned their homes.) A calamity of this size will require hospitality from hundreds of thousands of hosting American homes — roughly one out of every 250 households — including foster homes and adoptive parents for legions of Ukrainian war orphans.

Although Congress can appropriate money and incentives to fund part of this operation, revise immigration quotas and provide free air transport (and return flights if requested) to qualifying refugees, it cannot run the entire show as a federal program, especially at this scale. It’s the job of states, local governments and nonprofit organizations at the grass-roots level to help Ukrainians feel at home here and regain hope that tomorrow will be better. The last thing Ukrainians need now is a numbing, faceless labyrinth of federal bureaucracies.

Voters can support governors who step up and appeal to their legislatures for funding to help and who push their states’ congressional representatives for billions of federal matching funds. Cities, counties and school districts should start the hard work of launching a dramatic nationwide operation to enable households to bring in a Ukrainian guest or family and help them get on their feet.

The states could underwrite income- or property-tax credits for households that selflessly provide havens to the victims of Putin’s atrocities, sharing these state-level costs with the feds. The United Kingdom has launched a similar prototypical program to match host families with refugees. Congress can break its partisan immigration logjams if its members taste grass-roots support.

Not Just Helicopter Money

At the federal level, we need a visible national leader, a full-time coordinator for the most dynamic intergovernmental public-private partnership ever established for overseas humanitarian causes. A congressional matching-funds formula can make it clear that fiscal federalism also requires state and local funding, so it won’t be just helicopter money. Our governors, through their national association, can take the lead in coordinating with each other, Washington and their political subdivisions. The Big 7 state and local associations can play a vital role as well at the grass-roots, face-to-face level where they excel.

Counties and municipalities that typically provide social and public health services will become the front lines of this compassionate action response. Their talents, networks and fiscal capacities will be strained at times, but it is hard to believe that their voters and taxpayers would shun the role that they can play. If Americans are willing to endure higher gas-pump prices to boycott Russian oil, we should also be willing to pick up the tab for welcoming newcomers to our communities and getting them established.

The trauma and psychological damages that many of these migrants will bring with them will require mental-health services. For school systems, there will be additional expenditures for teaching English. For the orphaned children, there are multiple agencies that will play a role, which will impact our social-services system, schools and the traditional nonprofit agencies that facilitate adoption and foster care. Child-care options will be needed for war-separated mothers seeking employment. Host families will need counseling services, because this will not be as simple as putting up Uncle Ralph for a holiday weekend.

These programs will all require state and local money in addition to whatever Washington kicks in, but not really all that much — a few billion dollars, roughly the cost of one nuclear sub. Fortunately, the revenues of most state and local governments have not only recovered from the early days of the pandemic but are at record highs. It doesn't happen often, but for once the public purse can afford a large-scale humanitarian crisis response.

It's not that those who shelter in America will be unable to contribute to their own welfare. We have a national labor shortage, and Ukrainians are known to be industrious and hard-working. Their able-bodied adults would welcome meaningful — even temporary — work, not just a government dole. America’s bountiful farms will welcome families from Ukraine’s breadbasket who know the meaning of an honest day’s work. Local agencies can match urbanites’ skills and experience with jobs, even entry level, to bolster their self-worth and a sense of belonging.

Some will ask: “What about others? What about America’s homeless? What about Syrians? What about Latin American refugees?” And for that I have no immediate solution. But we have to start somewhere, and while the national passions are stirred up, let’s begin here. It’s almost impossible to find an issue with such broad-based red and blue support for putting our money where our hearts and mouths are. Maybe this experience will change the minds of voters who heretofore wanted walls but not welcomes.

I wish that the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine” could magically overtake today’s dark reality in Ukraine. But if there were ever a time for America’s state and local governments to stand tall and show their imagination — and their chops — then this would be it. Ours is, after all, the home of the brave.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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