Making The Stimulus Work For You

The logo of the Center for Community Change. At left is an abstract design of curved shapes, white on orange, and to the right is the organization name in black lettering.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was enacted at lightning speed under intense political pressure. Substantively, it was a hodgepodge of programs and initiatives with no pretence to consistency or cohesion. Procedurally, it was drafted with minimal input from grassroots constituencies and little thought to their role in implementation. Nonetheless, we view the legislation as a qualified success — not just for its beneficial effects on the economy, but also for its stimulative impact on community organizing.

Among the 300-plus local organizations that relate to the Center for Community Change, at least half have been engaged in some kind of stimulus-related activities. Community organizations have used the stimulus handle to advance two kinds of programmatic goals:

  • Financing specific projects in their communities, including employment programs, weatherization, transportation projects, land banking, and early childhood education.
  • Advancing broad principles for public spending, including process standards like accountability and transparency, and substantive policies such as racial and gender equity, community benefits, and job targeting.

The capacity to influence recovery programs has varied considerably across the field. In some places, the allocation of ARRA funds was greased from the start — particularly in the transportation sector, where many states have a backlog of shovel-ready projects. In other places (especially small cities and rural counties) public officials have been less clear about how to spend the money and reached out to community groups for ideas. Despite tensions over community demands for accountability, stimulus funding has provided many openings to collaborate with government in launching new and innovative programs. There have also been opportunities for joint action with organized labor on initiatives such as pre-apprenticeship programs in the building trades, raising labor standards on weatherization contracts, and community hiring agreements on major infrastructure projects. A small sampling of groups that have used stimulus to promote innovative policies and projects include New Labor in Newark, NJ, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative in Youngstown, Ohio, the Georgia Stand-Up in Atlanta, the Alliance to Develop Power in Springfield, Mass., Community Voices Heard in New York City, and the national Transportation Equity Network

In general, the groups that have had the most favorable experience with ARRA funds are those that have been able to tie the work to their existing issues and campaigns — rather than treating it as a “new” issue. Even where they haven’t succeeded in capturing recovery funds for their communities, they have been able to build new institutional relationships, inject principles of accountability and equity into the debate, and lay the groundwork for engaging in several broad policy debates that were ignited by the recovery package.

A debate going on mostly among Democrats is about whether programs should be targeted to the highest-need populations and communities (using an “equity lens”) or should be focused solely on reviving the economy. The stimulus package was a mixed bag on this score. All the public rhetoric from the administration and Congress was about the middle class, and efforts by the CCC and other groups to insert strong job targeting provisions were unsuccessful, but the package included major expansions in safety net programs (unemployment insurance, food stamps, the child income tax credit, etc) that chiefly benefited low-income people. This issue has not gone away and is likely to reemerge in the context of climate change legislation, transportation reauthorization, and other major federal spending programs.

Looming on the horizon is a critical struggle about how to respond to soaring unemployment, particularly in communities of color. The predominant view in the administration’s economic team is that a second big stimulus package is politically infeasible and possibly unnecessary given the nascent economic recovery. In this view, additional recovery spending should be modest at best and focused on nurturing the “green shoots” that are beginning to emerge in the economy. On the other side are those who argue that unemployment will remain unacceptably high for several years, with devastating impacts on many communities, and that Congress needs to respond with additional stimulus spending and further expansion of safety net programs. This debate is likely to heat up as long as unemployment numbers continue to rise.

We’ve seen substantial partisan bickering over the legitimacy of the stimulus, but the truth is that while the package wasn’t big enough (or fast-acting enough) to turn the economy around on its own, it has certainly had a positive impact. Viewed from a higher vantage point, the ongoing skirmishes over the stimulus package illuminate a deep challenge for our movement: the absence of a shared narrative that can articulate the connection between equity and prosperity, between cyclical and structural crises, between investment in poor communities and economic growth. We need a cogent story about the economy that incorporates the best thinking of progressive economists and policymakers; the insights of other disciplines; and the creativity and knowledge of local communities. Until we have it, our response to economic crisis will be less than the sum of its parts.

Deepak Bhargava is the Executive Director of the Center for Community Change. Seth Borgos is the Center’s Director of Research and Programs.


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