Budgets Reveal our Priorities

Last summer my class at the University of Nevada, Reno for my Masters in Public Administration was public budgeting. What we discussed in that class was the fact that budgeting in the political process is always political, and never based on completely rational principles. We can do our best to include data and think objectively, but a the end of the day we must make political decisions and judgement calls when we decide where we will allocate funding. How we make those decisions and where we choose to spend money reveal our priorities. This is particularly helpful to understand when we look at our nation’s problem with mass incarceration. A lot of people understand that there are problems with the number of people we arrest and that we underfund a lot of social services, but I don’t think people fully recognize the costs of mass incarceration in purely financial costs, and how those costs relate to other programs or areas where the government could spend money.

Michelle Alexander provides examples of the budget being used to arrest black people in her book The New Jim Crow. Rather than using money for services and programs upstream, before we ever arrest an individual, our resources over the years have shifted toward our police and prisons, making it easier to arrest people and providing funding to keep people incarcerated. Alexander writes, “During Clinton’s tenure, Washington slashed funding for public housing by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent) and boosted corrections by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent)”. She continues by quoting Loic Wacquant, “effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the urban poor.”

What the funding of public housing and prisons in the United States during the 1990s shows us is where our priorities lied regarding race, incarceration, and public housing. Alexander throughout the book demonstrates how a lack of affordable housing can lead to crime, particularly low level drug dealing charges. By taking away funding for public housing we set up a situation where poor people can barely afford a place to live and turn to illegal forms of earning money. Down stream this leads to more arrests and greater prison costs. Getting ahead of the drug dealing and arrest cycle in some cases is as simple as providing better housing (or any form of housing at all) so that an individual can work a basic job and afford housing.

Ultimately, our nation’s priority has been to punish those who we decide are bad apples rather than help those individuals create a situation where they don’t have to resort to illegal activity in the first place. We have conveniently told ourselves that success, failure, crime, and opportunities are the results of individual actions. The role of the collective and the importance of our position within society are downplayed when we look at success versus criminality, and as a result, we seek punishment for those who mess up and find it unacceptable to help those who are poor, struggling to avoid drug use, have slight mental health issues, and those who lack the education, skills, and abilities to become more successful in the low level jobs that we undervalue. If our priorities were truly aligned around helping people get a step ahead, or if our priorities were on creating a society where one could pull themselves up by their boot straps, our priorities would be reflected in a budget that did not decimate social services and public housing for those who needed some form of stability to help them get on the right path. Our nation has decided that directing ever greater funding toward police, prisons, and incarceration is a better use of our money as opposed to establishing a budget to fund upstream interventions to prevent crime and help build stability in people’s lives.

Hidden Backstories

Last summer I read extensively on race relations in the United States, and Senator Cory Booker’s United was my starting place. One of the things I was struck by in his book is how recently many actively discriminatory policies were in place, and the lingering effect of those policies. I had never experienced or seen outright discrimination or racism in my own life (I am a white male in my 20s, so it is questionable whether I would have recognized it if I had seen it), and I did not think that discrimination still acted as a major force in people’s lives today. Booker’s book along with several others, helped me understand how racial discrimination has persisted in various forms and helped me see how discriminatory practices from the past still impact the lives of people today.

Regarding housing policy in the United States, Booker demonstrates the lingering effect of racial discrimination with the following, “As Kenneth Jackson writes in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, ‘The result, if not the intent, of the public housing program of the United States was to segregate the races, to concentrate the disadvantaged in inner cities, and to reinforce the image of suburbia as a place of refuge [from] the problems of race, crime, and poverty.’”

In the United States today many large cities are gentrifying, meaning that more wealthy individuals are moving back into the cities, increasing diversity, bringing economic and cultural revival to inner cities, and also driving up the housing costs and cost of living in the cities. This is an opposite trend from what Booker explains by quoting Kenneth Jackson, and if we are not careful it could have the same effect of marginalizing poor groups of society which often tend to be majority racial minorities. In the not too distant past housing policies greatly advantaged white people and disadvantaged black and minority people. White families were shown different neighborhoods when looking for homes and received different treatment in suburban neighborhoods. The result was that it was difficult for black people and minorities in our country to move into newer homes in suburban areas, limiting their ability to build wealth through home investments, creating areas of concentrated poverty, and potentially restricting minority populations to environmentally more hazardous areas. Some of these policies were explicit and some implicit, but many still impact the lives of people today.

Restrictive housing in New Orleans as the city grew and developed in the 1900s created a segregated city with white home owners living and moving into neighborhoods on one side of the city which was higher in terms of altitude altitude, while black people and minorities were restricted to another side of the city with lower lying neighborhoods. When Hurricane Katrina decimated the city, the force of the storm tore up both the higher and lower elevation areas of the city, but the flooding was more pronounced and longer lasting in the lower elevation levels where black people had lived for generations. White people whose families for years had lived in the higher elevation part of the city still needed to rebuild, but with less flooding and quicker drainage, did not have to start over from square one. The housing policies of the not too distant past haunted the city in the early 2000s.

For our society today we must recognize these lingering effects and remember the harm that segregation caused whether intentional or not as we decide how we want to live today. I do not have a clear answer to the problems, but we should recognize when our housing policy as a society and living decisions as individuals lead to greater inequity among racial or economic groups. The gentrification today is not based on overt racial discrimination like the housing policies of the 1950s an 60s, but the economic segregation driving the engine of gentrification could still have the same effects of segregating minority populations into substandard housing and disadvantaging them with greater commute times, and restricted access to services and opportunities.

The Scope of Human Rights

Frank Hutchins, a housing and tenant leader in New Jersey, greatly shaped Cory Booker as he entered politics. Booker recalls several stories of Mr. Hutchins in his book United and offers several quotes from Frank that shaped the way that Booker’s came to understand and approach the world. Regarding human rights, Booker shares the following thoughts, shaped by Hutchins, in United,

 

“Frank asserted that civil rights — indeed, human rights— were not just about equal access to public accommodations and equal employment opportunity. Human dignity, security, freedom from fear, environmental toxins, and physical deprivation were also rights that should be defended and fought for. It was then that he said to me, looking at me with his kind eyes, ‘Cory, housing is a human right.'”

 

We often think of civil rights in the context of the Civil Rights Movement which frames our thoughts through black and white television footage of marches to end segregation. The black and white tv and fuzzy audio recordings make the Civil Rights movement seem so far behind us, but the reality that Frank expressed to Booker is that civil rights issues continue to this day and continue beyond racial categories. Civil rights was never just about segregation as we mistakenly think about it today, but rather it was about everything Frank expressed to Booker, about sharing with everyone on the planet a life that we would find acceptable.

 

When we think about human dignity, security, freedom from fear, toxins, and physical deprivation we are thinking about the things that make us human. We have our differences and we are not born equal in terms of our biological abilities and economic opportunities. We will have different material advantages, different social advantages, and different genetic advantages, but despite our inequities we deserve to all be treated as human and not somehow be treated as less than human because of our differences and starting points. We all understand this, yet it is hard to recognize our inequities, see our advantages, and understand that the reality we experience is not shaped wholly by our own doing, but often by acts and circumstances over which we have no control.

 

The reason we have trouble viewing the expanded idea of human rights that Frank shared is the same reason that road cycling is hard. Even when we are biking with a tailwind, we still feel air against our face, and still feel resistance from the air ahead of us, even though we receive a push from behind. Recognizing our own advantages, accepting that others lack those advantages, and seeing that though we still struggle we are greatly helped by our circumstances is challenging and humbling. But it is necessary if we are to update our views of human rights and share our humanity with those across the world.

 

Tackling human rights issues require that we expand our visions of equality. We must also recognize how much we are impacted by the social world around us and how much our society influences the opportunities we have. It is easier, and often encouraged in the United States, to turn away from the true human rights shortcomings in our country and assume that everyone can overcome any obstacle on their path. It is much harder, but incredibly necessary, to recognize the ways in which environmental hazards or the lack of adequate housing impact the lives of millions of people living in our society and how that reflects back on those of us who have adequate housing and advantages within our system.