Recently proposed federal funding cuts pose grave risks to communities across the state. One of those risks is the financial starvation of the nonprofit human services organizations that serve New Yorkers of all backgrounds and make our communities safer, healthier, and more just. This threat has left many feeling anxious or even hopeless. A new sign of hope may be in sight, however, with the rise of participatory budgeting in several cities across the nation. New York City’s seventh participatory budgeting cycle is currently underway.
Through the democratic process of participatory budgeting (PB), real power is given to ordinary people. This empowering program gives members of a community the opportunity to decide how part of a public budget will be spent. Giving community members the power to make spending decisions enables better budgeting made because these individuals know firsthand the needs of their communities. Since first starting in Brazil in 1989, PB has been implemented in 1,500 cities across the world. Within the United States, cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York City have taken part in this “new way of governing.”
In New York City’s PB program, Participatory Budgeting New York City (PBNYC), participating Council Members set aside at least $1 million from their budget for their districts to use. The funds provided to community members are capital funds, which means they can be used only to improve the physical infrastructure of city-owned property, such as schools, parks, public housing, and other public spaces. Some of these spaces house human service programs.
The first step of the process involves meetings in which eligible participants discuss local needs. Then with the help of experts, participants design project proposals that meet the needs addressed in prior meetings. After proposals are finalized, the public is given the chance to vote and choose five of their favorite projects. Once the votes are tallied up, the winning projects are announced and funds are allocated until they run out. In order to ensure that the participants are given enough time and the appropriate resources to make informed decisions, PBNYC was designed as a year-long process. Constituents of participating Council Members can even vote online.
Since starting in 2011, PBNYC has experienced significant growth and popularity within the City of New York. When the program first started, only four City Council districts were involved. In Cycle 6 (2016-2017), a total of 31 Council districts participated. In these districts, $40 million in capital funds were allocated to projects that improved communities. With 102,800 New Yorkers voting, PBNYC Cycle 6 saw an increase of 45 percent in voter turnout since the previous cycle.
Within New York City, an increased use of PB provides hope for the troubled nonprofit human services sector. In past PB cycles, nonprofit human services organizations that run programs on publicly owned property have received PB funds to improve their facilities. Organizations including Riverstone Senior Center, Children’s Aid (formerly Children’s Aid Society), Carter Burden Network, and Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services have all received funds for capital projects.
In addition, by encouraging the participation of community members in PBNYC, the process can draw attention to the needs of communities and create a new source of funding for much-needed services. HSC member The Fortune Society was honored by the Participatory Budgeting Project in 2016 for its work engaging formerly incarcerated individuals in PB.
Outside of New York City, the use and growth of PB throughout the country also provides a glimmer of hope. The most uplifting feature of this innovative process is its power to give a voice to every individual in the community. Regardless of legal status, age, or experience, almost anyone can participate in all of the different steps of PB. Although PB places an age limit for participants (PBNYC requires a participant to be at least 14 years old), it still provides those younger than 18 with an opportunity to be exposed to a crucial part of government and encourages them to speak up and make an impact within their communities. Most importantly, PB supports the American political system by trusting and giving power to the people. With greater emphasis on PB throughout the country, Americans will be empowered to make a difference by working together to improve parts of their communities that matter most to them.
For more information about PBNYC, visit https://council.nyc.gov/pb/.
–Esther Davila, Policy Intern