State governments have long used their powers to preempt local government rulings. This practice, known as preemption, describes the primacy of a higher authority of law (e.g. the state) over a lower authority (e.g. counties and cities). 

In May, Policies for Action announced six new grants for research into the ways that preemption in multiple states may be impacting racial justice and health equity. 

Researchers at Boston’s Drexel University, University of Iowa, University of Kansas Center for Research, University of Memphis, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Center for Housing and Community Studies, and University of California, Irvine will explore the issue from multiple angles.

Collectively, these studies will attempt to fill in knowledge gaps in the research on how state preemption impacts local governments and communities.

Here is a snapshot of what these new projects will explore:

Effects of State Preemption of Local Immigration Policies on Voting, Public Assistance Participation and Birth Outcomes Among Immigrant Households

Drexel University researchers aim to quantify the effects of state preemption of local immigration policies on voting, participation in public assistance programs, and birth outcomes. The study explores how state-level preemption of local policies affects various immigrant groups, including undocumented and authorized immigrants, residents in mixed-status households, and larger populations, especially Latinos. It will focus much of its attention on Latinos, the largest immigrant group in the U.S., because prior research indicates that anti-immigrant policies negatively impact their health and social conditions.

Innovation and Measurement of Preemptive Action on Racial Justice and Health Equity Curriculum Teaching (IMPACT)

At the University of Iowa, the research will examine the impact of policies that preempt instruction on racial justice and health equity in Iowa school districts and hopes to provide comprehensive insights into the intersection of policy and mental health equity. Researchers will examine the association of mental health emergencies and prevalence among Iowa’s youth following the enactment of preemption policies related to racism, sexism, gender education, and diversity and inclusion efforts. The proposed work aims to assist school districts and communities in Iowa in revising local policies to counteract any negative effects of state preemptive policies.

The Role of State Preemption on the Health Equity & Economic Security of Communities of Color in the Kansas City Metro Area

The ESHE (Economic Security and Health Equity) project at the University of Kansas Center for Research will examine the drivers and effects of state preemption laws in Kansas and Missouri that limit local government control over economic and housing policies. This study seeks to understand the reasons behind these preemptive policies and will explore how preemption has impacted the economic security and health equity of residents of color in the Kansas City Metropolitan area. 

Workers’ Rights Preemption, Political Power, and Racial Equity in the U.S. South

Researchers at the University of Memphis will scrutinize state preemption of local workers' rights policies, focusing on how these laws influence the efficacy of local governments and whether they affect public engagement, particularly within communities of color. It will examine the organizing strategies of Black-led community groups and their interactions with governmental bodies in the face of restrictive state legislation.

How Does State Preemption of Proactive Local Housing Code Enforcement Impact Racial Justice and Health Equity Outcomes?

A project from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Center for Housing and Community Studies will examine the effects of a North Carolina law that bars local governments from adopting proactive local housing code enforcement programs that require rental units to pass housing code inspection prior to leasing.

This prohibition forced the city of Greenville, N.C. to revert to reactive, complaint-based enforcement methods – weaker methods that allow many violations to go undetected. This change in policy shifts responsibility for enforcement from the local government to the renters themselves, who researchers believe may have many reasons for remaining passive about reporting violations. Based on prior research showing that access to affordable housing is a key social determinant of health, this project seeks to research the potential link between housing code enforcement and health. 

Can Land-Use Preemption Promote Racial Justice and Health Equity in California?

Some states have preempted local land-use regulation with the explicit goal of promoting racial equity. California is one example.

It is well established that local land-use regulation has led to substantial racial segregation, magnified the racial wealth gap, and produced disparities in access to a variety of resources and opportunities. Researchers at University of California, Irvine will assess whether preemption of local land-use regulation (specifically, state laws passed in California from 2016 to 2020) have produced beneficial impacts for racial justice and health equity. Have these laws, intended to preempt local restrictions on accessory dwelling units (ADUs), had a measurable impact on residential segregation? This is the project’s central question.


P4A will continue to shine light on this research, with the intention to build evidence for effective policies that balance the rights and opportunities of all people, and support racial and health equity. Stay tuned for updates and discussions about these and other interesting policy topics. 

Policies for Action (P4A) is a signature research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, administered through the national coordinating center at the Urban Institute.

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