October 13, 2020

This FUSE-produced story was originally published on CityLab.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic swept through the U.S., the effects have been swift and devastating. As sections of the country have shut down to stem transmission of the virus, so have entire economies. But the impact goes way beyond businesses and corporations. Cities and counties are suffering budget shortfalls and deficits in the tens of millions of dollars, while some states are reporting shortfalls in the billions.

Yet with the pandemic still in full force, there is a greater need for spending on emergency and preventative health care, medical and safety equipment, and messaging, in addition to emergency food, housing, and income support.

At the same time, the pandemic has also brought a laser focus to issues of racial inequity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and media organizations such as NPR have reported on the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on Latino, Black, and Indigenous people, who are contracting the disease, being hospitalized, and dying at higher rates than white people. Beginning in May, nationwide uprisings sparked by the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others by police officers further magnified the call for racial justice and equity across the nation and the world.

If it’s true that budgets reflect the values of any organization, what steps can government agencies take to make a meaningful step toward racial equity?

To many civic leaders, the necessity of centering questions of race and equity in all aspects of budgeting has become apparent. But what does this mean for governments struggling to serve the same size population with smaller budgets and significantly smaller staffs? If it’s true that budgets reflect the values of any organization, what steps can government agencies take to make a meaningful step toward racial equity?

FUSE Corps, in partnership with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), recently convened government and civic leaders to discuss these complex challenges. Building on the knowledge shared in this session, FUSE and GARE have identified seven ways to bring an equity lens when prioritizing government budgets.

1. Clearly define “equity.”

Find a common language and define terminology that can be shared with the entire agency and within every department.

In Austin, Texas, for example, the Equity Office worked with community-based organizations to adopt an official city definition of equity. “For those who are starting out, that’s the first hurdle, because you have so many spaces and so many people who will come to the table with different ideas of what equity even means,” said Brion Oaks, chief equity officer in Austin. “We can’t solve something if we’re all sitting around the table, working from a different definition of what it is.”

2. Drill down into the numbers to expose inequities.

Detailed data can reveal issues that broader statistics miss, said Karla Bruce, chief equity officer for Fairfax County, Virginia. Her team employs the principles of targeted universalism, a practice that identifies the needs of particular groups while serving the common goals that benefit everyone.

For example, in Fairfax County, with a population of about 1.2 million, aggregated data shows the community is thriving, Bruce noted. “However, when you begin to disaggregate those numbers, you start to see that deep inequity,” she said.

Her office developed a Covid-19 vulnerability index that includes such data points as people’s races, level of income, and whether they have vehicles or are employed in essential jobs. “We made population data available that helped people see how some of the decisions that they were making were going to disproportionately impact different areas of the county, and, therefore, different populations of the county,” she said. “Covid happened on top of an already racialized structure in our community. There was already housing segregation. There were already people who were struggling. It was important that we made data available to give our operational agencies the ability to know how their policies and practices were affecting folks.”

3. Use data as evidence to hold officials accountable.

Data is a valuable tool for convincing officials to take concrete steps. In Fairfax County, Bruce used data to focus on facts, rather than people’s personal opinions. “There are many moral reasons why you would take a focus on equity,” she said. “However, it’s important to realize that not everybody is motivated by the same moral reasons. It wasn’t until we could draw the connections between the outcomes of people in our community to the future of our economy that it began to make a real shift in terms of the level of importance.”

This focus motivated elected officials to adopt One Fairfax, the county’s racial and social equity policy, which requires that race and equity be considered in all planning and decision making across the government.

In Louisville, Kentucky, the Center for Health Equity published a report that uses a compilation of geospatial maps to show health outcomes across the county. The report highlights health inequities, such as Black populations dying at a greater rate, and explains how these inequities are shaped by policies and institutions. The center used the report to educate elected officials and funders about the need for repair.

4. Track and keep assessing the success of investments in equity.

Fairfax County’s One Fairfax policy means that departments must consider equity when determining budgets. The budget process is “where the priorities of a local government are reflected,” Bruce said. “And I can see how our equity focus has really influenced how we prioritize our investments. To inform decision making and prioritization, agencies are asked to describe intended results and how their budget requests contribute to advancing equity or reducing disparities in outcomes.” Though action has been temporarily delayed due to Covid-19, the county’s FY 21 budget process resulted in the identification of affordable housing and child care as funding priorities key to advancing equity.

Austin, which worked with the community to create the city’s first racial equity assessment tool, has a continuous improvement process in which its equity team works with all 42 city departments. “Our departments will do a racial equity assessment, and then we provide a SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats] analysis for them. They develop it and execute the action plans,” Oaks said. “They come back two years later, and they do that process again. In addition, we have to integrate this work into our budget process.”

To help progress its equity work, Austin also created a dashboard that includes such information as the city’s definition of equity and links to equity dashboards for every department, from the public library to neighborhood housing to the purchasing office. Beyond serving as a tool for internal city use, the dashboard provides transparency and accountability to the community. “As the community does their work to inform us about the budget or other policy positions, they can go to the dashboard, and they can look at equity assessments for departments that may intersect with the particular issue that they’re looking into. They can see where their efforts might — or might not — align with the work of the department,” Oaks said.

5. Include the voices of diverse communities in budget discussions.

In Austin, the city is working to include its Quality of Life Initiatives, which focus on improving conditions for African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American communities, in the budget process. “We submit budget proposals to our Quality of Life commissions before our city manager even develops a draft of the budget,” Oaks said. “We also set up a system to track accountability of their recommendations, where departments have to give official responses on why or why not the recommendations show up in their proposed budgets.”

Since 2015, Pittsburgh has engaged in participatory budgeting, which includes residents in budgeting decisions. “Every year, prior to when the city formally begins its budget process, we have a series of budget forums with the community,” said Chris Hornstein, former FUSE fellow and assistant director of the Department of Public Works Facilities in Pittsburgh. “What the community says directly impacts how we deal with specific projects. It’s really beneficial for us to get their feedback and understand their concerns.”

6. Take a high-level view of funds for greater equity.

When looking at a city’s budget, Oaks emphasizes the need to focus on the big picture and build equity across the entire budget when making decisions. “In Austin, we sometimes will go around and around on small buckets of money and how it should be allocated. But we’re losing sight that this is a billion dollar-plus budget. We have huge portfolios of funding that impact our community,” he said. “That is the work that we have to do as it relates to racial equity and the budget process.”

“We were able to leverage $2 million with an organization called the Family Independence Initiative to do direct cash assistance for families that were experiencing a Covid hardship. In 72 hours, we helped 1,000 families in our city, so they could pay bills, buy groceries.” Brion Oaks, chief equity officer, Austin, TX

Incorporating a broad view will be especially important as cities strive to come back from the pandemic. Gordon Goodwin, GARE director for Race Forward, a nonprofit working toward racial equity, notes that economic recovery will vary greatly among cities. Larger cities already suffering from a depleted tax base, for example, and cities that relied on shrinking industries for taxes will most likely face greater budget challenges. “A lot of the burden is going to be coming to homeowners and property taxes, and oftentimes lower income communities and communities of color are not able to withstand some of the additional taxes that are going to be needed,” he said.

One state that addressed such a disparity is Georgia. Since the mid-1980s, the state — where school budgets often rely on revenues from property taxes — has provided extra funds, known as equalization grants, to poorer school districts to match wealthier district’s funding levels. This June, cutbacks forced Georgia to strip $2.2 billion from its budget, including $950 million from funds for K-12 public schools. However, programs that provide extra funds for low-wealth districts would not only be preserved, but increase, according to reports.

7. Find creative ways to simplify delivering funds.

The grant-seeking process can be intimidating and tedious, especially to novices. In San Jose, California, the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services improved the process for some grants by lowering the maximum funding amount to less than $10,000, which according to city rules enabled the department to streamline the procurement process and expedite getting funds into the hands of the grantees. The department also boiled the entire application process down to answering just three questions, which further increased accessibility for community partners.

In Austin, the city opted for the simplest approach — giving cash to people who were not eligible for funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act by using the city’s reserves to create a program called RISE.

“We were able to leverage $2 million with an organization called the Family Independence Initiative to do direct cash assistance for families that were experiencing a Covid hardship. In 72 hours, we helped 1,000 families in our city, so they could pay bills, buy groceries,” Oaks said. “It was the first time our city had ever done a direct cash assistance program.”

Because of the success of the pilot, the city council decided to allocate another $12 million to direct financial assistance for those families.

K. A. Dilday is a FUSE contributing writer and a New York based journalist. She has held staff positions at The New York Times, CityLab, and Essence Magazine.

Photo Credit: Pixabay