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The Biggest Social Issues to Watch in 2024

Legislatures across the nation are confronting several social issues including crime, drug use, immigration and poverty. These issues will continue to hold resonance, of course, in the November elections.

Two women hug during a remembrance ceremony
Two women hug during a remembrance ceremony outside of City Hall on Tuesday, July 4, 2023, in Highland Park, Ill.
(Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
Editor's note: These issue briefs originally appeared in our annual Issues to Watch, which was published on Jan. 10. You can read the entire article here.


Taking a tough-on-crime stance, whether on the campaign trail or filing legislation, has become common again in state legislatures. A bill just filed in Kentucky, for example, would increase penalties for violent crimes, including the revival of an idea from the late 20th century: The bill’s three-strikes provision would require life sentences without parole for individuals convicted of three separate violent felonies.

After gaining great currency in the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, the idea of restricting or penalizing police behavior is now just about moribund. Eliminating cash bail — not requiring defendants to post bail to get out of jail before trial — is another idea that’s become a non-starter. Last year, Illinois became the first state to eliminate cash bail, but advocates of that approach admit it’s a tough sell elsewhere. “For reformers, there’s going to be a lot of defense rather than offense,” says Adam Gelb, president of the Council on Criminal Justice.

This might be a surprise at a time when homicides are down, in most places, from their spike during the pandemic. Last year, homicides plummeted by 12 percent, according to AH Datalytics. Despite the drop, however, homicides remain higher than they were prior to the pandemic. And although anger about crime has historically been driven by homicide and other violent crimes, now people are also mad about property crimes — particularly auto and retail theft.

The scope of retail theft has sometimes been overblown — the actual data is fairly mixed — but media coverage has been heavy and many lawmakers are anxious to address it. Last year, a half-dozen states passed laws increasing penalties for organized retail crime. This year, many bills will seek to lower felony theft thresholds. Previously, several states had raised the dollar amount in value thieves had to take before facing felony charges, but the momentum now has swung the other way.

Raising felony theft thresholds was an important component of the broader criminal justice reform movement, which seeks to reduce levels of incarceration. But sensational media coverage about shoplifting and other retail crimes — along with the reality of sharply elevated numbers of auto thefts — will make property crime more of a focus than it’s been for many years, Gelb predicts. “These theft events have the potential to derail two decades of criminal justice reform,” he says.

In 2023, several states adopted compassionate release policies or clean slate laws, giving former offenders the chance to apply for jobs and housing without noting their criminal records. But reformers recognize that it’s going to be harder this year than it’s been for some time to overcome the desire among lawmakers to crack down on murderers, thieves and drug dealers.

—Alan Greenblatt


Prior to the pandemic, annual deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S. were already a dreadful 65,000 per year. By 2023, that number had nearly doubled, to more than 110,000. Roughly 70 percent of those deaths are due to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 18 and 45.

Although everyone can agree the death toll is horrific, there is no consensus about how to address it. For Republicans, the right approach to fentanyl is a combination of stricter law enforcement, tougher sentencing laws and tighter border security. Many lawmakers want to stiffen penalties for possession of even small amounts of the drug, in a reverse of the recent trend toward lowering sentences for simple possession. Individuals selling or trafficking fentanyl would face substantially longer sentences.

Many Democrats have accepted the need to stiffen penalties, due not only to the scourge of fentanyl but the apparently endless emergence of ever-more-potent drugs. Fatalities from a sedative called xylazine have increased dramatically across the country, but particularly in the South. A class of opioids known as nitazenes can be as much as 40 times as powerful as fentanyl.

The fact that synthetic opioids are so readily available means that a supply-side approach is doomed to failure, some Democrats and public health officials believe. Even if it were possible to cut off supply from China and Mexico, there would be plenty of domestic production. Last year, law enforcement seized more than 360 million doses of fentanyl across the country. Still, the drug remained plentiful.

Rather than relying entirely on law enforcement, what’s needed is treatment, including both medication and therapy, says Jill Rosenthal, director of public health policy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. “Just like we would approach heart disease by identifying who’s at risk and who needs treatment, we need to do the same thing with opioids, because it’s a health issue,” she says.

There seems to be one area where both conservatives who want harsher penalties and progressives who favor a public health approach can agree: fentanyl test strips. Fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs — including counterfeit prescription pills — but the test strips allow users and others to detect its presence and reduce their risk of overdose. On Jan. 1, new laws took effect in Illinois that allow trained overdose responders to use fentanyl strips and pharmacists and retailers to sell them over the counter.

Last month, Pennsylvania’s Legislature passed a bill requiring acute care hospitals to test for fentanyl and xylazine when administering emergency room drug screenings. “Testing for fentanyl can mean the difference between life and death for someone who has unknowingly been poisoned with it,” said GOP state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who sponsored the bill.

—Alan Greenblatt


Federal policies and systems determine the growth of the immigrant population and the pace at which cases are resolved. Congress is currently debating both security measures and spending, but this may end up being a year when campaigning on immigration issues takes precedence over real action. That means states will be working hard to fill policy and service gaps.

Encounters between Border Patrol agents and migrants at the U.S./Mexico border — which include both apprehensions and expulsions — have reached record highs. Authoritative data regarding the outcome of these encounters isn’t available past 2021, but changes in federal policy have greatly increased the number of people entering the country with uncertain, temporary status. More are crossing the border who have been observed by agents (or technology) but not apprehended.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates there are more than 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Past studies have found that more than 6 in 10 didn’t cross a border illegally, but overstayed their visas. Migration from South America and the Caribbean is increasing, including greater numbers from countries that don’t have a long history of mass immigration to the U.S., such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Chicago’s Office of New Americans offers services including legal assistance, language access and help for undocumented students. It’s an example of a trend in other cities. But states and cities are struggling to meet the costs of providing services and housing to migrants, especially jurisdictions known for pro-sanctuary policies.

States have long held that the federal government should do more to reimburse the costs resulting from its policies. Relief funds that have helped meet housing emergencies are disappearing, and some cities are using their own facilities to provide shelter. Mayors of cities including Chicago, Houston and New York complain they’re overwhelmed by newcomers and have called on the Biden administration for more support. "This is a national problem that should not fall on the backs of local cities," New York Mayor Eric Adams said last month.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, ordered the National Guard to border communities in December. “Yet again, the federal government is refusing to do its job to secure our border and keep our communities safe,” Hobbs said. “With this executive order, I am taking action where the federal government won’t.”

The complaint about federal inaction, of course, has been louder and more persistent from Republican governors who are concerned not just about the number of individuals crossing but the lethal drugs some of them carry. Last year, Florida enacted a sweeping law imposing penalties on companies that hire undocumented workers; blocked local governments from issuing identification cards to them; increased penalties for human smuggling; and required hospitals to collect data on costs for caring for undocumented immigrants.

A Texas law scheduled to take effect in March would make it a state crime for people to enter the state illegally from other countries. The Justice Department has sued to block the law.

Progressives aren’t happy about the tougher stance some Democrats are taking, or the administration’s willingness to negotiate on some GOP demands. “We shouldn’t be scapegoating immigrant lives,” Delia Ramirez, a Democratic congresswoman from Illinois, complained last month. Pro-immigrant groups note that migrants help address workforce shortages and point out that mistreatment of undocumented migrants remains a problem, from substandard wages and dangerous working conditions to violation of child labor laws.

More people are working across borders because they fear they could die if they stay where they are, from starvation, war, murder or natural disasters, suggests Theresa Cardinal Brown, senior adviser for immigration and border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Many bills that made it through state legislatures in 2023 were intended to foster inclusion of immigrant populations, from extending tuition programs to expanding access to driver’s licenses, regardless of status.

Still, the political momentum on this issue appears to be swinging the other way. Because the Biden administration has “refused to secure the border,” Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott said on Jan. 6, “Texas has, and we will continue, to erect barriers, repel migrants, [and] bus and fly migrants to New York, Chicago, and other places like that."

—Carl Smith

Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic helped peel back the lid on a nationwide mental health crisis that had been building for years. While mental health is an urgent priority, it also intersects with many other key policy concerns, from homelessness to public health, policing and public safety, workforce policy and gun violence. Voters in California will decide whether to approve a $6 billion bond issue to fund behavioral health housing and treatment settings on the March ballot.

Mental health challenges have grown across the board, but particularly among young people. According to a widely cited report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year, 57 percent of teen girls said they felt “persistently sad or hopeless,” with 30 percent saying they’d seriously contemplated suicide. Advocates are now pushing states, cities and counties to provide more school-based mental health services. Twenty states have added mental health education to their curricula since 2016, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

A major step forward at the federal level was the passage in 2020 of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, which established 988 as a universal hotline number for suicide and mental health crises. Congress left much of the work of implementation up to states, notes Stephanie Pasternak, NAMI’s director of state affairs, including the establishment of emergency call centers and response teams. In setting those up – and fielding millions of calls – states have run into serious workforce challenges, as has been the case with other areas of service. NAMI is now pushing states to pass a monthly fee on phone lines to pay for crisis response, similar to the ones that fund 911 emergency services. Eight states have passed such fees thus far.

In terms of response, more and more lawmakers have come around to the belief that law enforcement agencies aren’t the best equipped to address mental health challenges, says Debbie Plotnick, a state advocacy leader at Mental Health America. New telehealth regulations are making it easier for people to access mental health treatment as well. But there’s been regression in some areas in Plotnick’s view, including crackdowns on street homelessness in some places. That’s an issue that should be addressed with housing policy, she says.

“What is difficult is building out the infrastructure to make sure that mental health needs are attended to before people reach the crisis stage,” Plotnick says. “Most policymakers are looking at crisis as the point where they need to do intervention.”

—Jared Brey


Childhood poverty dropped dramatically during the pandemic, thanks to an expansion of the federal child tax credit. Families spend the lion’s share of their additional cash on essentials such as food, housing, clothes and transportation. The federal increase, which eliminated complicated eligibility requirements, expired in 2021, but its impact has inspired a rash of state interest in adopting their own credits over the last two years.

More states are expected to follow suit in 2024. At least 14 states now have their own versions of a child tax credit, and 10 more are considering new proposals. As they take effect, new evidence will inform an ongoing debate among researchers around the impact of expanded tax credits on employment rates. “All of a sudden, you have half the states with a child tax credit or an active proposal,” says Megan Curran, policy director at the Columbia University Center on Poverty and Social Policy. “That, in the course of a year, is an amazing policy shift.”

Separately, more states are requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to workers. Nebraska voters may get a chance to vote on the policy at the ballot in 2024, after state lawmakers rejected a proposal in 2021. Missouri voters could weigh in on a similar policy, along with a proposal to increase the state minimum wage to $15 per hour. Some states, including Colorado, Maryland and Maine, are working to implement new family and medical leave policies, offering extended benefits for childbirth or caring for elderly relatives. Others are starting to offer family leave specifically for educators. The National Conference of State Legislatures is also watching an increase in state legislation related to expanding food benefits for children and families and reducing food insecurity. Meanwhile, at the local level, dozens of cities are experimenting with guaranteed cash assistance programs, often targeted at families with young children.

—Jared Brey
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of <i>Governing</i>. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for <i>Governing</i> and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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