Close-up of a 2012 copper US penny, cut into six pieces of unequal size.


You Might Have to Accept Cuts—But Don’t Accept Devaluing of Your Work

As municipalities face post-pandemic fiscal shortages, there’s a longer-term danger lurking behind budget fights.

An image of a American Penny that is divided into various sized pie charht sections.

Close-up of a 2012 copper US penny, cut into six pieces of unequal size, to illustrate budget cuts.

Photo by Warrenrandallcarr via iStock

COVID-19 caused widespread and disproportionate impacts across the entire nation and throughout every sector. In addition to causing unemployment to rise, earnings to fall, resources to become scarce, and a widespread rental crisis, the virus also forced businesses to close, employers to issue work from home orders, and governments to intervene in order to increase public safety and relieve hardship.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, local, state, and federal policymakers worked together to enact substantial measures both for immediate relief and longer-term recovery. However, no matter how desperately needed or well-intended these interventions were, by design they were only a temporary fix. Last year’s District of Columbia budget reflected this as investments in housing programs dropped dramatically from the previous year, even considering that that previous year’s allocation had been significantly higher as a result of federal relief money.

As we enter 2024, nearly four years after the start of the pandemic, local economies are only now beginning to see the true impact of the post-pandemic recession, the result of major societal and municipal shifts that occurred from 2020 to 2022. Because of continued remote or hybrid work environments, municipalities are seeing huge reductions in revenue typically generated by downtown corridors. Commercial real estate investors are either trying to offload, or are stuck with, empty corporate offices and small business spaces. Landlords and housing developers continue to experience unprecedented rates of rent non-payment.

Though these shifts were unavoidable, they have opened the door for political leaders and other stakeholders to make significant changes in their public policy agendas and economic priorities. Jurisdictions that have historically had robust downtown revenue projections, such as D.C., are now engaging in contentious budget conversations where the sentence “We can’t afford that right now” is growing ever more prevalent in discussions concerning long-standing progressive policy solutions and interventions.

However, the issue we’re facing as a society is not merely that jurisdictions can’t afford to fund their programs and policies at the same level as they did prior to 2020. The real danger is that political leaders are trying to justify hard budget decisions by also devaluing the programs and interventions that are being cut. They are following up “we can’t afford that” with “plus, I’m not certain how well those programs were working anyway.”

This second part of the statement is damaging beyond the period of budget constraints because it belittles proven program effectiveness. It opens a channel for misinformation, manipulated facts and figures, and the overall tainting of historically successful and high-impact programs. The effect of devaluation of progressive programs will last longer than the inability of policymakers to invest. If devaluation succeeds, when budgets recover, the programs we count on to support the vitality, growth, and sustainability of equitable local economies may be left behind.

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During this period of budget challenges, it is critical that allies, advocates, and community members counter devaluation directly, making sure to be on the record with statements like: “We understand budget restriction may prevent substantial investments now, but these programs are working, and we hope when things are better, you will revert back to supporting them.”

As my organization, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, prepares to enter its FY2025 budget engagement with the District of Columbia, we will focus on providing hard data on the need for—and the effectiveness of—programs that have made the district a national leader in affordable housing and caring for its residents through deep, sustained investments in human services, economic mobility programs, and more. I encourage my colleagues around the country in community development to do the same.

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