Young people, like many Americans, deeply distrust government. In fact, according to one survey conducted in spring 2016, faith and confidence in the federal government among 18- to 29-year-olds is at a historical low: below 23 percent, down from 36 percent in 2000. It’s hardly a surprise that young Americans’ voting turnout rates remain anemic.
Participatory budgeting (PB) is one way to get young people more engaged. In participatory budgeting, community members are the ones who decide how to allocate some public funds. Research suggests that participatory budgeting can open up the black box of local policymaking, especially for youth, offering a profound civic education.
What is participatory budgeting?
PB began in 1989 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, and has spread to more than 3,000 cities worldwide. Its first U.S. appearance came in 2010, when an alderman in Chicago allowed his constituents to decide how to spend a portion of his discretionary budget. In 2011, four New York city council members launched a similar initiative, and more than half of the city’s council members now participate. It has spread to 18 U.S. cities, and at least three schools (at the college and high school levels) use participatory budgeting.
The pots of money used in each process differ. The city of Vallejo, Calif., devoted a portion of new sales tax revenue to PB. In the youth-only Boston process, Mayor Marty Walsh has allocated a portion of the city’s capital budget to PB. Most of the processes use discretionary funds. However, some agencies in New York City, universities, and other institutions have expressed interest in opening up portions of their non-discretionary budgets as well.
Although the details of each PB process vary, there are usually four stages: brainstorming ideas in community assemblies; vetting and developing project ideas into full-fledged proposals that appear on ballots; voting; and funding and monitoring.
Usually, the people who get involved in hands-on civic efforts are higher-income, older adults. We wanted to know whether the process can get young people involved.
Does PB actually get young people involved in civic life?
The New York PB Research Board (of which I’m a member), coordinated by the Urban Justice Center Community Development Project, has conducted annual surveys of PB participants in New York City. In 2015, the board collected 22,000 responses and analyzed a random sample of 7,420 surveys.
The data suggests that PB has brought in many traditionally marginalized citizens, including young people. For instance, we found that 12 percent of PB voters (those who cast ballots, deciding which projects will be funded) last year were under age 18. In 2014, 13 percent of PB voters were under the age of 25; only 4 percent of voters in local elections are under 25. And in some districts, young people were involved earlier, making up one-third of those who came to neighborhood assemblies to raise concerns and brainstorm ideas.
How does PB shape civic engagement?
From 2013 to 2015, our research team conducted over 80 in-depth interviews with past and present participants (chosen randomly from PB meeting sign-in sheets). That included 24 interviews with youth participants, and 19 interviews with facilitators and city agency staff working with youth. These included individuals who stayed involved through an entire PB process, as well as those who dropped out.
We asked about the participants’ backgrounds and previous civic engagement (if any), their reasons for getting involved, the strengths and weaknesses of their experiences with PB, and what got in the way of staying involved. We also observed neighborhood assemblies, examining conversational dynamics.
Here’s what we found about what got young people involved.
1. When peers contact them, more young people get involved.
Some districts hosted assemblies that specifically catered to youth or non-English-speaking groups. Not surprisingly, these districts had higher voting rates among those constituents than districts that did not do so. People of color and lower-income citizens often heard about PB from community groups, via door-knocking or from schools, while higher-income and white citizens heard about PB online or from their council members.
Young people were most enthusiastic when they heard about it from a friend, or when they were able to bring friends along so that they would not be alone.
2. Young people learned new skills and gained confidence along the way.
In meetings, I watched young people draw on their daily experience to inform adults about their communities, such as which hangout spots felt dangerous after school. But without training, they really wouldn’t have been successful at developing full-fledged project proposals on their own. Intensive mentoring and training were essential in bringing them along.
In some cases, young people voluntarily spent months researching community needs using census and other data, visiting the sites of proposed projects, navigating municipal budgets and mastering technical funding criteria. When interviewed, they told us they’d gained leadership and research experience along the way — developing skills such as public speaking, creating legible poster boards that presented proposals to their communities at large, facilitating difficult conversations and chairing meetings.
3. Young people will get involved if it’s fun. Doing so helps overcome distrust of authority.
Some young people who got involved were already engaged in their communities. Others came to neighborhood assemblies because their high school classes or after-school programs required them to go. They had expected PB to be a bunch of boring meetings. They were surprised when, instead, they exchanged ideas with peers and adults and enjoyed themselves.
Some teens said they were struck by how people took turns speaking and explaining why they did or did not support particular projects. Usually, they explained, they were full of anxiety when speaking to adults in official settings — people who might be principals, park rangers, or bus or subway workers with the power to punish them. For many students from lower-income communities of color, in particular, these official encounters are part of an ecosystem of public distrust.
4. Participatory budgeting has room to grow.
Some PB participants complained that PB rules meant they had to “think small,” instead of actually addressing community needs. Without more flexibility, they felt they were “choosing” projects much like what the local government would have pursued anyway. In those cases, they weren’t really reforming the budget so much as using PB as a release valve for their frustrations. The young people who dropped out said they did not feel PB was worth their effort if they could not “make a difference” through their projects.
We still have questions about the long-term effects
Does getting involved in participatory budgeting actually get young people to stay more involved in their communities? We don’t know just yet. To find out, we need to follow participants over time to see whether PB prompts them to vote in elections, contact elected officials, attend city planning meetings, or work with community groups. When a participant’s beloved project doesn’t win funding, does she feel more frustrated and alienated than before, or might she then find alternative ways to mount the project?
The answers, of course, may depend on more than the PB process; they may also depend on whether local government actually responds to her concerns.
Celina Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell chair of urban studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College. She has served on the New York City participatory budgeting steering committee since its inception.
This post is part of a series on youth political engagement organized by the Monkey Cage and CIRCLE, a national research center on youth civic education and engagement that is part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.