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Does Participatory Budgeting Change How Money Is Spent In New York?

Last year, New York City residents got to vote on how $39 million in public money was spent in their neighborhoods. This process, called participatory budgeting or PB, funded capital projects like improving playgrounds, planting trees, buying computers for schools, and installing GPS-enabled countdown clocks at bus stops to show when the next bus is due.

Unfortunately, participatory budgeting was suspended this year due to COVID-19, but by last year, it had expanded to 32 of New York’s 51 City Council districts, up from just four City Council districts when it started in 2011.

But does PB actually change the way public money is spent in New York? A recent study published in Administration & Society, co-authored by Professor Dan Williams (Baruch College), suggests that it does not.

PB started in Brazil, in 1989. Studies have shown that its impact there was “revolutionary,” the authors wrote, with “increased spending on health care and small decreases in poverty” in 220 Brazilian cities, along with a fundamental shift “of public resources from serving the well-off to serving the poor.”

The same was not true in New York City, however, the researchers found. Here, districts with PB funded more projects, but with less money per project, than districts without PB. The authors describe this as “a form of political patronage, in which elected officials spread public financed largesse more widely throughout their respective districts.”

The way the system is set up in New York, each council member gets $5 million in discretionary funding to spend in their districts, and council members taking part in PB spend $1 million of their $5 million on projects proposed by and voted on by constituents. (They get to spend the other $4 million of their discretionary funding as they see fit.) Ultimately, then, funds are “not redistributed between districts,” meaning there is no reallocation from wealthy areas to poor areas. The study also found that the system has not resulted in new priorities or substantial shifts from one type of spending to another. In Brazil, for example, there was an uptick in public health spending, but that has not happened here.

But the very fact that more projects are funded by PB, albeit with less money per project, could be a good thing in and of itself. As the authors wrote: “Whether this reflects legislators’ seeking to spread largesse throughout their districts to help with future elections or whether it is a response to newly discovered needs through the PB process (i.e., empowerment) remains an open question.”