“Participatory budgeting is democracy in action,” proclaims a recent email to constituents from Brad Lander, a progressive city councilman in Brooklyn, New York.
We hear a lot of claims of this kind from proponents of participatory budgeting, a process that has been adopted throughout the U.S., which enables citizens to vote on how part of a municipal budget will be spent. New York City Council’s website touts participatory budgeting as a way to give “real power” to people who have never before been engaged in the political process. Participatory Budgeting on NYC’s Twitter account offers an irresistible invitation: “YOU Decide How to Spend Taxpayer Dollars!”
Just like a focus group or any mechanism intended to give us a voice, participatory budgeting can feel a lot like democracy. It offers a glimpse of how a more civically engaged society might work. But it’s also a distraction from the actual mechanisms of power, and can reinforce or even worsen existing inequalities.
Celina Su, a Brooklyn College political scientist who has studied the matter, observes that the process tends to favor those with social power. Her findings show, as you might expect, that people with resources are more likely to lobby for projects that serve their communities, and to run successful campaigns. My own Brooklyn City Council district, located not far from Lander’s, includes many poor neighborhoods and poor people, yet more than half the projects on the ballot this year served gentrifying populations. Last year, a proposal to improve a garden in a local housing project lost by just a couple thousand votes. On Staten Island last year, all three proposed improvements to a housing project were voted down. In Lander’s district, all of the winning capital projects served well-off or gentrifying neighborhoods.
There might be ways that such inequalities could be mitigated to make the process fairer. Officials overseeing the process could do more outreach in poorer neighborhoods and place more curbs on the participation of the rich and savvy. But an even more intractable problem, as Gianpaolo Baiocchi, a scholar who has studied participatory budgeting, has observed, is that these contests over relatively small amounts of money can distract activists from trying to gain real power in the political system.
In my district, all of this year’s proposed projects were necessities, not just stuff that somebody thought might be cool. Making an elementary school building safer should not be left up for a vote, and shouldn’t have to compete with fixing the electrical system at my beloved branch library. The fact that both were viewed as optional and were even on this ballot, pitted against one another, reflected a lack of popular power. In a rich and prosperous city, everyone’s needs should be met.
It’s great that Lander’s district voted to fix “derelict” (the wording on the ballot) sinks in a kindergarten classroom, but why should such an important priority be up for a vote? The same could be said for making a branch library in Queens more accessible to people with disabilities (an item on last year’s ballot). Last year, many of the participatory budgeting projects throughout the city involved air conditioning for public school buildings, all of which stay open through June, and many used for summer school classes. The public voted to fund some of these, and not others. Yet, on some summer days, New York City temperatures reach well over 90 degrees. Why choose whose children must suffer in sweltering heat? It’s horrible to hold a “Hunger Games” process to decide whether to make a school playground safer and more accessible, or to resurface a public soccer field. These things should simply be done, without any self-congratulatory gimmicks or rigmarole.
The reason these kindergarten sinks are in such sorry condition in the first place is because of a regime of austerity imposed upon the New York City public sector ever since the 1970s, by real estate and finance industry elites who don’t want to have to pay higher taxes, a status quo that conservative Democrats and Republicans in the state capital are happy to protect. The only solutions are electing more people who favor redistribution into office in Albany, and organizing to build power for the 99 percent, whether through tenants’ groups, unions, or left political parties.
While participatory budgeting originated in Latin America in the context of such ambitious efforts, Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza observed in a 2014 paper, in the United States, it has been completely disconnected from any left institutional projects.
“Choice”—as we know from the past two decades of so-called education reform— should not make the poison pill of austerity any easier to swallow. Neoliberal policymakers think that we should be happy that we get to choose our children’s schools, even though they are all underfunded. Ultimately, participatory budgeting is a similar scam. The pleasure of making choices can’t make up for stark inequalities and scarcity. While getting to vote on the budget is fun, it doesn’t come close to giving citizens “real power”—or even distributing the crumbs of influence equitably.
One caveat is that in the context of a well-funded public sector that met every community’s basic needs, participatory budgeting would be a wonderful way to encourage inventive policy-making. A lot of innovation can come from engaging people who are outside the policy world. Some of the winning projects in Lander’s district this year—for example, a study of endangered bats in Prospect Park—were exciting ideas that will probably never correspond to any specific line item in a city budget. The participatory budgeting process is one way to find funding for such ideas, and involve the public in thinking them through. But no way should we be voting on whether to make an elementary school or playground safer, or worse, deciding which kids deserve this safety more.
Perhaps, then, the problem is not necessarily with participatory budgeting as a concept, but with its broader, unequal, and stingy context, in which so many basic needs are left unmet. The frisson of making proposals and choices may have its place, but let’s please tax the rich and fix everyone’s sink.