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Participatory Budgeting Lets New Yorkers Experiment With Economic Democracy

Unlike the shady fiscal roulette that lawmakers often play with your tax dollars, PB gives ordinary people leverage to direct spending according to their idea of the greater good.

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Hadden and Lerner point out that this participatory paradigm helps “level the playing field” because “traditionally underrepresented groups often participate more than usual in PB, which helps direct resources to communities with the greatest needs.” In addition, people grow more invested in the system: “Through regular meetings and assemblies, people get to know their neighbors and feel more connected to their city.... Budget assemblies connect community groups and help them recruit members.”

For Community Voices Heard, PB fits into a  broader mission of making government more responsive to poor and disenfranchised groups. The organization has also helped lead innovations in publicly sponsored jobs programs for people receiving public assistance. The group is pushing an initiative known as  Transitional Jobs, designed to improve upon the traditional dead-end “workfare” programs of many state welfare bureaucracies by connecting people to decent-paying, meaningful work and educational programs. According to a recent CVH report, though Transitional Jobs pilots have faced some funding and operational challenges, they have brought an infusion of government resources into progressive workforce programs and generated about 3,000 jobs over two years.

Both PB and Transitional Jobs remain a work in progress. Vincent Villano, Participatory Budgeting and Policy Research Coordinator at CVH, told  In These Times:

there is a connection between investing in job creation for low-income communities and the participatory budgeting process.  For example, there is a chance that in the future the capital projects that are funded through PB could be built by those who are unemployed or underemployed members of a Council District--like a sweat equity program or something like that. The beauty of the PB process is that the possibilities are endless. ... The PB process is still in its infancy here in NYC, but it is completely feasible to imagine a stronger connection between this process and alternative job programs for welfare workers like Transitional Jobs.

But PBNYC is currently constrained by limited funding, Villano said, and programatically, the process in its embryonic form “only used capital discretionary funds for ‘bricks and mortar’ projects as opposed to expense discretionary funds which could be used for ‘people, services and programs.’” In other words, it might be a good while before citizen-led budgeting can apply to deeper, long-range economic initiatives to strengthen working-class communities.

But even as an experiment, Participatory Budgeting in New York City demonstrates that, given the resources and power to help shape their economic future, people can change how their communities work--and take credit for making it happen.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times,, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen @

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