The Minneapolis agency takes up 30 percent of the city budget, Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale told the Guardian. “Instead of giving them more money for pointless training programs, let’s divert that money into building up communities and individuals so we don’t ‘need’ violent and abusive policing.”
The tension between funding law enforcement and social services is at the heart of many of the calls for reform. Spending data compiled by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman for their book “The Triumph of Injustice” underscores the scope of the issue: The United States spends more than twice as much on law and order as it does on cash welfare programs.
Saez and Zucman used data from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis to reach this conclusion. It includes all federal, state and local spending on law and order (police, prisons and the court system) and on cash welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and supplemental Social Security payments).
Up until about 1980, American governments spent roughly the same amount on criminal justice and cash welfare: a little over 1 percent of total national income for each. But those trend lines have steadily diverged ever since: Welfare spending has been on a long, uneven decline, while law and order spending ballooned almost unabated until about 2010, when it amounted to nearly 2.5 percent of national income. Since then, law and order spending has fallen to a hair under 2 percent, while welfare spending stands at about 0.8 percent of national income.
Much of the increase in law and order spending stems from the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s, which required massive investment in police and prisons. More recently, advances in policing technology, such as license plate recognition apps and gunshot detection devices, have driven costs.
Much of the reduction in welfare spending, on the other hand, was concentrated in the mid-1990s, after President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans spearheaded welfare cuts.
Taken together, the two lines trace a dramatic shift in national priorities. We funneled money away from poverty prevention to beef up our response to one of poverty’s biggest consequences: crime. We now treat the symptoms rather than the underlying disease.
As a result, many major cities spend as much as 40 percent of their municipal budgets on policing, leaving a dwindling pool of resources for poverty prevention, infrastructure and everything else. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated this dynamic: Cities facing steep revenue declines are trying to decide which services to cut to remain solvent, and mayors are often hesitant to cut law and order spending.
However, there are signs that the protests spawned by Floyd’s killing, which have morphed into a national movement against police brutality, are altering this dynamic. In Minnesota, for instance, both the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis public schools have decided to limit their contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department. Efforts to reduce police funding have drawn endorsements from high-profile celebrities. Images of law enforcement officers attacking peaceful protesters, members of the clergy and journalists are prompting discussions over the proper role of police in society.
Those discussions will inform the budgets drawn up by cities, states and the federal government in coming years. Whether they have the effect of bringing spending on welfare and criminal justice in line with their prior levels remains to be seen.