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Budgeting Justice

Cities must empower historically marginalized communities to shape how public funds are spent.

, Costa Constantinides

During the summer of 2020, protestors demanded that George Floyd’s, Breonna Taylor’s, and too many others’ murderers be charged and convicted. They also demanded that cities nationwide defund the police. The Black Lives Matter uprisings provoked intense conversations regarding systemic racism in U.S. policing and foregrounded the need for institutional reforms.

In the year since, responses have been woefully inadequate. Though Derek Chauvin was found guilty of killing Floyd, the prosecution’s case hardly mentioned race. Beyond his conviction, cities around the country issued apology statements for institutionalized racism—acknowledging the role of urban planners in redlining and the disinvestment of Black communities—and formed commissions for racial justice. But the results have been disappointing. The Philadelphia commission on Pathways to Reform, Transformation, and Reconciliation, for instance, only launched economic programs aimed at Black small business owners, not wage workers, freelancers, and the unemployed.

 

These top-down moves give companies and governments a semblance of righteous action, even as they leave intact the histories and structures that enable police violence. They fail to redistribute funds away from police departments and toward new visions of community safety, freedom, and spaces where all individuals can thrive.

To address police brutality, cities need budget justice: public budgets that give historically marginalized communities resources to address their needs. Budget justice requires a new sort of democracy that emphasizes three points of practice: first, budgets are moral documents that make explicit what communities choose to divest from and invest in; two, direct democracy must engage everyday constituents, rather than elected representatives, in a range of decision-making conversations and actions about collective needs; three, micropolitics must reshape the rules and expectations regarding whose knowledge, expertise, and lived experience shapes state policy and collective action.


Policymakers usually make budget decisions behind closed doors. When elected officials do make public budgets transparent, they often present them as neutral documents and claim that “numbers don’t lie.” Budget numbers do, however, often obfuscate our everyday circumstances and needs. For example, without a sense of historical data or where exactly money is going, it would be difficult to discern whether additional funds for a particular school benefit all of the students, barely make up for the prior year’s budget cuts, or add amenities for a small selection of honors students. While public budgets are often portrayed as technical and impersonal, they are moral documents that reflect specific public values and theories of government.

Taking cues from the platform articulated by the Movement 4 Black Lives, focusing on the budget part of budget justice prompts communities to articulate divest-invest strategies that redirect money away from expenditures the community doesn’t value and toward those it does. For instance, in the summer of 2020, protestors camped out in front of City Hall for more than a month, asking the New York Mayor and the City Council to cut the police budget by $1 billion and instead invest in community care: healthcare and social services, child and elderly care, and well-maintained streets, gardens, parks, and public spaces. Although the police eventually cleared the encampment, the monthlong Occupy City Hall protests significantly shaped the 2021 fiscal year budget, with more than $865 million in cuts to the police department’s operating expenses compared to the 2020 budget. (DeBlasio explicitly acknowledged the protests’ impact by including lower fringe benefits in his calculations, so that he could claim $1 billion in cuts.) The defund the police aspect of budget justice has received attention and deservingly so, but we also need new tools to meaningfully redistribute and invest money. In my work with activists, I have heard laments on how communities must articulate a vision of the different worlds we should work toward. Demands would then concern not just community safety and violence prevention, but all policy domains shaped by racial and class inequalities.

 

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We cannot expect such ideas to come from policymakers and those in power. Those most impacted by over-policing, carceral capitalism, unaffordable housing, and underfunded schools must make budget decisions. Likewise, many of the participants in the current uprisings against police brutality argue that voting is not enough; they claim that demographic or descriptive representation and placing “Black faces in high places,” as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, have not addressed racial inequalities nor stopped the killing of Black Americans. Empowerment entails more than fighting voter suppression and fixing the electoral college. The road to budget justice emphasizes new modes of democracy—such as citizens’ assemblies and mini publics—that give participants opportunities for deliberation, not just picking from ready-made menus of policies or ballots.

Our greatest challenge is breaking out of the confines of our popular imagination in radical ways and creating new social, economic, and political relations. As public policy is currently governed by racial hierarchies and neoliberal logics of competition, deservingness, respectability politics, and individual responsibility, struggling communities are too busy competing against one another to build a better world. Logics of competition undergird means-tested services for unhoused people, for instance, and expanding opportunities for bootstrapped hard work (through “uplift” and entrepreneurial mindsets, education, cultural competence, or plain hustle and “grit”). These are all formulated inside the box of austerity and mainstream liberal inclusion.

We need new models altogether for grants and urban planning. We must demand substantively different models for affordable housing, schools, and public space. This asks cities to not just improve the numbers (of Black enterprises) in the current system, but to change the relationships between real estate developers, residents, and urban planners. In other words, this requires each of us to engage our communities’ experiences with racial capitalism and then change the criteria that determines the beneficiaries of current public policies and budgets.

Changing these relationships begins with micropolitics, or what others have called prefigurative politics, which occurs outside official voting and formal advocacy. It involves mutual aid collectives, neighbors helping neighbors without asking for their résumés or histories of suffering, and constituents allocating funds to policies and projects that address community needs. It involves paying attention to community members’ local knowledges and lived experiences. The work of micropolitics reshapes participants’ class and racial subjectivities—the stories we tell ourselves about the positions we hold in social hierarchies and the roles we play vis-à-vis the government and one another. Realizing budget justice requires that community members themselves articulate the criteria we wish to live by, forwarding new logics of collective care and community control.

The contemporary goal of budget justice attempts to pay tribute to the idea of abolition democracy W. E. B. Du Bois examined in Black Reconstruction in America (1935) almost ninety years ago. In recent decades, Black feminist, intersectional, queer, indigenous, critical race, and anticolonial scholarship have pinpointed just how systemic hierarchies persist in the afterlives of slavery and empire. As Harsha Walia writes, abolition democracy also demands the “imagining and generating of alternative institutions . . . prefiguring societies based on equity, mutual aid, and self-determination.” This project of world-building must be rooted in on-the-ground community organizing and participatory democratic experiments.

Attempts to realize budget justice already exist. A number of cities, such as Los Angeles, Nashville, and Seattle, have articulated new funding priorities in lieu of policing. This has occurred against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the U.S. government has failed to coordinate adequate testing, protective equipment, and epidemiologically sound guidance, as well as offer support during remote schooling, job loss, and massive loss of life.

Integral to such efforts is participatory budgeting (PB), a process by which residents, rather than elected officials, allocate public funds. Since it first began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, PB has spread to over 3,000 cities worldwide. In past cases of PB, diversity in participation by gender, income, and racial background contributed to the legitimacy, continuity, and redistributive potential of the processes. In the United States, PB has spread from a single local process in 2010 to over 500 currently active district, city, or institutional processes. PB attempts to give stakeholders an opportunity to draw upon their knowledge of local needs, articulate proposals, interact with neighbors, deliberate over priorities, and select—not just consult on—which proposals receive funding. In so doing, it lays out budget questions in tractable ways and helps individuals understand how city bureaucracies work. But some researchers have argued that PB has morphed from an empowering and democratizing process into a politically malleable, innocuous set of procedures that reflect subtle domination by elites or legitimize pro forma decisions by policymakers. Indeed, PB can be misused to reinforce existing racial hierarchies.


New York City has the country’s largest PB process by far; since 2012, New Yorkers have decided how to spend more than $250 million on almost 1,000 projects through PBNYC. I draw on a decade of fieldwork on PBNYC to ground my ideals of budget justice, the limits and uses of the groundwork laid thus far, and how communities might build upon PB processes for budget justice.

I conducted fieldwork in East Harlem, where residents gathered at PB assemblies and met in school cafeterias and auditoriums to discuss what they wanted to spend public funds on. A middle-aged white man from the Upper West Side had walked across town to come to a neighborhood assembly and pitch new amenities for his daughter’s school. As he listened to mostly Asian American, Latinx, and Black neighbors, especially elderly ones, talk about the need for laundry in their buildings and the neighborhood’s largest concentration of public housing in the country, he changed his mind. He decided to withdraw his proposal for his daughter’s school and instead help his neighbors advance their proposals.

Through exchanges such as these, communities around New York have used PB to articulate and reprioritize funding allocations. An analysis by Carolin Hagelskamp, Rebecca Silliman, Erin Godfrey, and David Schleifer shows that from 2009 to 2018, capital spending in districts with PB were markedly different from those without. Schools and public housing, for instance, received more funding, while parks and housing preservation received less.

Whereas electoral politics typically engage the “usual suspects”—higher-income, older constituents—PB engages traditionally marginalized constituents, including youth, formerly incarcerated constituents, and undocumented immigrants. The first citywide rulebook dictated that anyone over sixteen who lives, works, attends school, or is the parent of a student in a district could participate in neighborhood assemblies and project-vetting, and residents over eighteen, including undocumented immigrants, could vote on the allocations. Enthusiastic and strikingly fruitful youth participation in neighborhood assemblies then convinced adults to lower the PB voting age to sixteen and the participation age to fourteen in 2012. The voting age has been lowered almost every subsequent year, now standing at age eleven.

Research coordinated by the Community Development Project shows that nearly one-quarter of people who voted in NYC’s PB process were not eligible to do so in typical elections. Carolina Johnson, H. Jacob Carlson, and Sonya Reynolds found that PB participants were 8.4 percent more likely to vote than those who had not participated in the process; the effects are even greater for those who have lower probabilities of voting, such as low-income and Black voters.

Indeed, participants repeatedly stated that the PB process allowed them to engage in discussions with neighbors they otherwise wouldn’t have met, the proverbial “other” in deliberations. They emphasized PB’s deliberative nature, its encouragement to exchange ideas and compromise. This differs from electoral politics, even for those already politically active. For one participant, the combination of working with others unlike herself and working toward binding budgetary decisions gave the PB process a sense of impact lacking in her usual civic engagement.

My interviews with PB participants revealed the potential for alliances between groups of residents and organizations who might usually lobby for funds independently. They spoke to how the PB deliberations allowed them to emphasize more than one aspect of their lives and identities—for example, as African Americans, Harlemites, parents, public housing residents, or sports fans—and emphasize issues of intersectionality, rather than a single identity of race, gender, or other social axes. More than one interviewee stated that, like the Upper West Side resident, they ended up backing projects they would not have otherwise thought of or supported.

PB thus serves as a necessary, though incomplete, node in a larger ecosystem of participation and mobilization for budget justice. I highlight three takeaways:

First, PB must be expanded and deepened beyond its current design. The East Harlem exchange previously described could not have transpired even two years later, after City Council lines were redrawn in New York (East Harlem was zoned to be in the same district as lower-income South Bronx neighborhoods, rather than higher-income Upper West Side ones). That district’s PB process thus lost much of its redistributive potential. Unless the funds and scopes of projects are substantially expanded, PB remains the exception to how municipal budgeting usually works: a way for constituents to voice concerns, let off steam, and see some of their ideas come to fruition while most of the budget remains opaque and predetermined. (In the 2019-2020 cycle, New York City Councilmembers devoted over $35 million to the PB process. That year, the city’s budget totaled $96 billion dollars.)

Second, by focusing exclusively on the invest side of the equation, PB will remain incomplete. It thus risks propagating the myth that the problem is a scarcity of funds, rather than austerity as a policy. PB in the United States is not consistently tied to explicit questions of funds’ origins; eligible funds are often those deemed easy, limited, regressive, or discretionary. In Vallejo, California, the citywide PB process allocates proceeds from a sales tax. Other PB funds have come from Community Development Block Grants. In other places, community groups have campaigned for PB processes to allocate the proceeds of court cases where firms had to pay hefty damages. In New York current PB funds come from City Councilmembers’ discretionary budgets; when the pandemic hit, all but a few paused their PB processes. In 2018 a referendum to change the City Charter and establish a mayor coordinated PB process was approved by a landslide, but Mayor de Blasio failed to adequately fund it. PB must be tied to larger policy campaigns, individual projects (as with Seattle’s Solidarity Budget), progressive tax policies, and divestments and investments.

Third, PB deliberations were profoundly shaped by micropolitics, namely how participants related to each other and to civil servants and city bureaucrats, as well as whose arguments and proposals were deemed credible. PB deliberations could perpetuate existing inequalities without attention to epistemic justice—actively questioning what bodies of knowledge are counted as rational, true, and valuable and who is seen as an expert. In PB this concerns how city bureaucrats sideline local knowledge in favor of technical knowledge. In issues related to budget justice, someone with lived experience should be considered an expert on their own environments as much as someone who has crunched quantitative policy analyses or studied the law. Without attention to epistemic justice, technical experts can reject project ideas with significant community support.

These are not simply quibbles about institutional design, but about power. On whose terms and to what ends is PB carried out? These are questions of quality as well as size and scope.


Even if the entire New York City budget were subject to a participatory process, to what extent does the process enable constituents to forward project proposals that combat dominant discourses on what New York needs? To be sure, the city government’s budgeting becoming more transparent does not render it liberatory. In particular, the prevalence of surveillance cameras among New York City PB projects, especially in public housing, highlights PB’s limited power in contesting racist logics of austerity. Thus far, these surveillance camera projects have won funding every year.

These PB projects prompted debates in neighborhoods with changing demographics, deep inequalities, and new real estate developments—in other words, vulnerability to hyper-gentrification and displacement. Long-term residents felt that the surveillance cameras were yet another sign that they were being pushed out and local budgets were being used to make newer, wealthier residents feel safe and welcome. Many residents believe that new residents—less likely to be Black or Brown—voted for these surveillance cameras operated by the New York Police Department.

But participants of color also advocated for surveillance cameras. These proponents reported that they did so because their visions of community safety included greater police accountability and economic support as well as surveillance. In their proposals, it was crucial to include both bottom-up accountability and access to the video footage captured by cameras. PB should allow constituents to shape both what programs are administered and how. Interviews suggested that the more robust, nuanced proposals had been dismissed, whittled down, abandoned, or improperly implemented during the PB process.

By contrast, when implemented well, PB can help communities articulate proposals that tend to everyone’s safety. In one Brooklyn district, local participants reached out to members of historically sidelined communities and translated proposals into formal, technical language deemed “proper” by city bureaucrats. They also convinced their local Councilmember to make more creative proposals—with no current precedent in the existing city budgets—eligible to receive PB funds. When hate crimes rose after the 2016 election, innovative projects funded through PB in this district included bystander/ “upstander” training for residents to safely intervene when they witness harassment or violence. Residents also voted to fund self-defense workshops by and for Bangladeshi and Muslim women.

This stands in contrast to the national and ostensibly progressive responses to anti-Asian violence. The March 2021 shootings in Atlanta spas prompted Congress to pass the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act with rare, bipartisan support. However, the Act solely serves to allot more grant money to law enforcement agencies nationwide. In May President Biden signed it into law and deemed it a triumph against hate. This differs greatly from how members of affected communities would go about implementing change.

PB entails tough conversations on the intersection between policing and gentrification, the availability of health and employment services, and how community safety policies should be executed and implemented. In this case of rising anti-Asian violence, it also entails conversations on whether additional policing would actually prevent individual acts of hate or address the white supremacy and austerity that sow systemic violence. The sorts of conversations that yielded the Muslim women’s self-defense workshops in Brooklyn, for example, also touched on histories of anti-Black urban policies, the War on Terror and anti-Asian xenophobia, and contradictions in popular discourse about Asian Americans as both model minorities and “foreigners.” Face-to-face dialogue and brainstorming help neighbors assist one another in concrete ways and articulate new roles based on solidarity, without fomenting racial resentments or hierarchies of oppression.


The questions raised in PB deliberations prompt fraught conversations on race and class. Native-born, white residents report higher incomes than other residents. Moreover, higher-income, higher-educated residents may have the social networks and legal skills to navigate bureaucratic regulations more easily in municipal budgeting. Race continues to serve, as Stuart Hall put it, as a fundamental “modality in which class is lived. It is also the medium in which class relations are experienced.”

Despite significant limitations, we know that PB is doing something in New York—if only because some city officials work so hard to contain it. Indeed, the most impressive and important impacts of New York’s PB process have not been the winning projects themselves. Rather, they lie in PB’s spillover effects and the changes prompted by the process itself.

For example, from 2011 to 2013, parents and students were upset about putting PB discretionary funds toward school bathroom stalls, which felt like a basic need. The PB process mobilized them around this issue; in 2014, the Department of Education doubled its allocation for school bathrooms explicitly because of PB. By 2018 PBNYC had also sparked over $180 million in additional spending on specific, community-articulated priorities, such as air conditioning and bathroom repairs in schools. In another example, a former parent-teaching association (PTA) president angered by her wealthy school’s aggressive campaign in the local PB process led her to create a new organization explicitly aimed at helping PTAs at lower-income schools access funding.

PB helps set new precedents for both spending priorities and how city agencies operate, and it helps to change residents’ expectations for city policymaking. For example, in addition to spending its budget differently, the Parks Department’s experiences with PB led it to design new websites to make it easier for residents to track its expenditures, including not-yet-implemented ones.

When—as in the school bathrooms and PTA cases above—PB’s limits leave participants frustrated, indignant, and angry, the process has also trained constituents to want, demand, and fight for more. PB can hence serve as site for politicization. One participant, for instance, had never worked on a community issue before; she built upon her PB experiences to become a member of her public housing tenants’ union and then a tenant organizer, winning significant concessions for her housing project.

PB can thus contribute to budget justice when it is tied to mobilization and ecologies of care. Indeed, many of the New Yorkers now active in mutual aid efforts during the pandemic became adept at non-hierarchical organizing and decision-making through PB, and several of the more recent PB projects funded during the pandemic, such as diaper distribution centers throughout Brooklyn, build upon mutual aid networks. Communities can only achieve budget justice if we combine seemingly disparate forms of resistance and care in strategic ways with a clear eye to the future. In so doing, we conceptualize democracy not as a set of institutions, but a set of practices and situated solidarities.


Celina Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies and a Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York. Her publications include Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx, a book of poetry entitled Landia, and pieces in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, n+1, and elsewhere. Her work focuses on everyday struggles for collective governance, centering economic democracy and racial justice.

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