To Budget for Equity, Cities First Must Define Equity

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Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Without a clear and shared definition of equity, city leaders cannot understand the underlying conditions that create existing disparities in their community, let alone make informed budget decisions that foster equity.

Systemic inequities are entrenched in local governments. And the sheer pervasiveness can make it hard for city leaders to know where to start when making structural changes to how services are delivered or programs are designed. Many local leaders are now looking at their budgets—a city’s most important annual statement about its values and priorities—to address long-standing issues of racial injustice.

Before cities can reshape their budgets to advance racial equity, they must start by defining what equity means in their community. Only after a city has established a shared understanding of equity can it develop equity initiatives, strategies and actions that reduce disparities.

While equity language is often used in departmental reports, the term is rarely defined. It’s common for a city’s housing agency to have one definition of equity while the transportation team has another. While this is not "wrong," it makes it more difficult to build momentum to address complex, interconnected disparities. 

No one-size-fits-all definition of equity exists. The definition will and should look different in every city. But city leaders can take four foundational steps now to ensure they are clearly defining equity and the outcomes, practices, decisions and structures they will need to change to make lasting progress for all their residents. These steps can help cities uncover community disparities and establish a deeper understanding of who and what needs to be considered when making budget decisions. 

Set Clear Priorities to Advance Equity

Without a shared definition of equity, a city's investments and programs may not address the issues they are intended to solve. City leaders should ask: Are we being inclusive when determining our priorities? Are we acting in an urgent and intentional manner? 

An example of this can be seen in Philadelphia where city leaders have incorporated a comprehensive list of racial equity questions into its budget process. They have outlined what racially equitable budget requests should look like and have requested that projects be data-driven—with data disaggregated by race and gender in collection, analysis and reporting—and focused on historically disadvantaged stakeholder groups in their design.

Collect the Data Needed to Achieve Equity Goals

A city must have a deep understanding of its constituents’ various conditions and experiences so they can be considered and addressed. Cities must also determine what data infrastructure is needed or is currently in place to determine what data is missing or needed for strategies to be developed and implemented in ways that are equitable. 

For example, Oakland, California has started collecting baseline equity indicators about its residents. This data includes median annual income, unemployment rates, levels of rent burden, number of households without access to the internet, educational attainment, correlation(s) between high school dropout rates and student race, means of travel for work commutes, and health disparities.

Engage with Residents on a Shared Agenda

City leaders should be acutely aware of who will be worse off or better off as a result of their budget decisions. It is also important to invest time to facilitate uncomfortable discussions around how city leaders define structural oppression and institutional racism. This allows people to come to a shared definition and understanding together. 

Mayor Jorge Elorza of Providence, Rhode Island recently signed an executive order to document the legacy of policies, programs and investments (or underinvestments) that have perpetuated systemic racism for the city’s Black, Indigenous People and People of Color. Providence’s engagement of its constituents in this process is the city’s first step toward identifying inequitable laws and practices so they can be eliminated or reformed. 

Hold Your City Accountable for Results

City leaders must hold themselves accountable for considering equity both behind closed doors and publicly. This includes how internal leadership and staff are being engaged at all levels, and how the city is being transparent with its community so that residents can hold city leaders accountable for results. City leaders must also determine how accountability structures might be put in place and kept on track if progress on equity isn't being achieved.

The 29 cities participating in the City Budgeting for Equity (CBER) program at Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities initiative are working with municipal finance experts to build equity directly into their budget, procurement and other processes. They are setting clear, actionable goals and building in metrics to ensure they meet them. 

Prioritizing equity is not just about using new dollars for new programs, it’s about looking at who is making these decisions, what information they are using to understand how structural racism is at play, if they need training and what existing resources can be reallocated to address legacy issues.

Cities must be deliberate in uncovering systemic, structural issues that lead to inequitable outcomes for residents. But meaningful change cannot be made if you have not first defined what you are seeking to change. City leaders must start the process of uncovering systemic racism by establishing and proactively disseminating their shared definition of equity and using upcoming budget and funding decisions as an opportunity for pursuing more opportunities to make equitable change. 

To hear more about budgeting for equity, join Route Fifty’s Budgets and Shortfalls town hall on May 25.

Anjali Chainani, the former director of policy for the city of Philadelphia, is helping to lead the City Budgeting for Equity program at What Works Cities.

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