There are lessons to be learned from the way governments dealt with crises of the past, whether we are looking at threats to public health, social unrest or an economic catastrophe.

A hundred years ago, municipal governments faced daunting challenges, including political corruption, poor sanitation and inadequate infrastructure. The first city managers tackled the problems with a vengeance, making sure, for example, that water and sanitation systems reached all neighborhoods.

In the 1920s, Petersburg, Va., City Manager Louis Brownlow reported that the city's public-health initiatives were paying off. In one year, the city's infant mortality rate dropped from 189 per 1,000 people to 106.

Today we take for granted that our children will not get polio, yet that epidemic lasted for decades in the United States, peaking with 57,879 cases in 1952. It ended with a vaccine, mostly administered to children in their schools in the mid-1950s, and a vaccine may end the COVID-19 pandemic. In the meantime, however, we have fallen behind on routine childhood immunizations, essential to prevent outbreaks of diseases like measles.

In the 1960s, social unrest sparked by issues including civil rights and the Vietnam War was at the forefront of government's challenges. "We are in the midst of an urban revolution in the United States — economic, social, moral, and cultural ferment that pervades all elements of our lives," observed the International City Management Association's president, David Rowlands, in 1967.

As the protests of the 1960s continued, local-government leaders listened to more community voices and pressed their regional, state and national partners to take action. Then and now, federal resources were needed to mend the nation's social fabric.

The 1960s social-justice issues included more-equitable service delivery and the need for low-income housing. Today we still need to address housing affordability, while the current protests over the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police have given new urgency to the need to transform law enforcement. Community policing has resurfaced as a sound strategy, while questions remain on how to address police misconduct complaints. Leadership is needed for culture change, and the voices of local government officials are being heard in response to the protests sweeping across our cities.

Keeping protesters safe while maintaining public order has added to local governments' costs on top of the fiscal burdens imposed by the need to deal with the pandemic, at the same time that tax revenues have plunged as a result of business closures and stay-at-home orders.

In the Great Depression, local government leaders initially focused on cutting costs, adopting innovative strategies such as cooperative purchasing. But good management alone cannot protect communities from economic realities as harsh as we're seeing now and saw then. In the 1930s, many smaller jurisdictions could not keep up with their debt payments; more than 2,000 municipalities defaulted, and they were forced to cut services just as the unemployed needed more help.

Local governments pressed their states for a greater share of state revenues, and more than 20 million Americans benefited from federal unemployment relief as millions more found employment through infrastructure-building programs such as those conducted by the federal Works Progress Administration. By 1934, local tax collections began to revive and cooperation with states and federal governments grew.

Today, local government managers stretch tax dollars by employing such strategies as sharing services with other jurisdictions. They use technology and automation to reduce costs and improve services. But as in the 1930s, it's become clear that the economic impact of the pandemic is far too harsh for them to sustain essential services on their own. Cities, towns and villages anticipate budget shortfalls of more than $360 billion between 2020 and 2022, and counties expect a $144 billion budgetary impact through fiscal 2021.

After the Great Recession of 2008-2009, local and state governments shed more than 720,000 jobs over several years. Just since the pandemic began, twice that many state and local jobs have been eliminated. About 85 percent of those jobs are in local government: teachers, along with public safety, public works, public health and other local employees.

Clearly urgent federal action is needed now, just as it was in the 1930s and during the Great Recession. The HEROES Act, passed by the Democratic-controlled House in May, includes $915 billion in direct, flexible aid to state and local governments. The bipartisan SMART Act, introduced in the Senate, would provide $500 billion in emergency financial aid to local and state governments.

As self-reliant and innovative as local governments have shown themselves to be through the last century, in the present situation only bold federal action can stabilize their budgets so they can sustain vital public services during this trifecta of pandemic, social unrest and economic crisis.


Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.