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What If Regular People Could Decide How Cities Spent Their Money?

This story is published as part of Teen Vogue’s 2021 Economic Security Project fellowship.

The national conversation about defunding the police has helped focus a critical spotlight on how exactly towns, cities, and states spend their money. A number of local communities have directed existing movement momentum toward a redesigned economic vision, creating what are known as “people’s budgets.” This certainly isn’t a new concept, but it’s become the latest pathway to shift money from oversize police budgets in favor of commonly underfunded city resources such as social services, prison diversion programs, and other community-focused solutions to incarceration.

Unlike typical top-down approaches to city budgets that operate behind closed doors, people’s budgets are designed to rely on community input. Using wide-reaching surveys and tried-and-true grassroots methods, including neighborhood canvassing and community town halls, organizers gather an impressive amount of data and feedback about where residents want their local tax money to go and how they want to break up the city’s financial pie. If we believe that budgetary breakdowns represent a community’s priorities, current people’s budget initiatives indicate that communities around the country want to see some major shifts.

In cities like Los Angeles, Nashville, and Louisville, Kentucky, people’s budgets put forth by local Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter chapters, along with other local community organizations, advocate for cutting millions of dollars from police departments. Coalitions in Charleston, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, are using their proposals to prioritize anti-poverty initiatives, such as addressing food insecurity and improving access to housing.

Teen Vogue takes a closer look at people’s budget programs in four different cities to get a better sense of what this movement is trying to accomplish and how advocates’ efforts are going.

There are a few different community-informed budgetary efforts helping to shift Chicago’s budget toward more community-focused solutions and services. Since 2019, Chicago’s Office of Budget and Management has conducted its own public surveys to determine the public’s priorities for the city budget. The results of last year’s survey examined more than 38,000 responses: In answer to one question, 87% of respondents chose police services as the portion of the budget from which they’d recommend reallocating resources; in reply to another question about “concerns or revenue ideas related to” the budget, the city received 19,650 comments — more than 18,600 of them mentioned the police.

A separate group of community leaders and activists have collaborated under the Chicago United for Equity (CUE) umbrella to organize a citywide survey and canvassing effort to gather input on the city’s budget. The resulting report, called the People’s Budget Chicago, revealed many of the same priorities that the city’s own survey did. Another movement in the city, called the #DefundCPD campaign, emphasizes abolitionist principles and is largely driven by young people of color in Chicago. Launched during the height of the George Floyd protests in 2020, the #DefundCPD movement calls for the Chicago Police Department’s budget to be cut by 75%.

The city at the heart of the Floyd protests was one of the early leaders in the fight to reduce police budgets. A month after Floyd was murdered, the Minneapolis City Council even voted to begin the process of entirely disbanding its police department, which didn’t happen. Local community groups Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective had been working to reduce the city’s policing budget for years before spring 2020, but the nationwide protests provided a boost. Mayor Jacob Frey released his proposed city budget near the end of September, including $178.7 million for the Minneapolis Police Department, down from the $193 million allocated the year prior.

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