Executive Summary

In participatory budgeting (PB), members of the public vote on how public money should be spent. Equity goals have been central to PB processes in North America, but is money allocated through PB spent equitably? Published in Local Development and Society, this peer-reviewed research examines whether PB-associated increases in public school investments have benefited students with higher economic needs. 

Co-authored by Carolin Hagelskamp, Berlin School of Economics and Law; Celina Su, Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center; and David Schleifer, Public Agenda, the paper examines equity in project development, voting, and budget allocations in PB in New York City.

Using data on the proportion of students in schools whose families are eligible for public assistance, the research shows that PB-funded school projects in fiscal years 2016, 2017, and 2018 did not benefit either higher- or lower-needs students compared to school projects that city council members funded on their own discretion.

However, the research shows how two strategies with the potential to advance equity were used during PB project development. Equity descriptors—i.e. project descriptions on PB ballots that emphasize a school’s economic or other needs—were used in 7.2% of school-related ballot items. Bundling—i.e. combining projects across several schools into one PB ballot item—was used in 33.9% of school-related ballot items. 

The use of both equity descriptors and bundling were both found to be associated with winning PB votes. Interviews with PB volunteers and city council staff provide insight into how and why PB stakeholders in New York City use equity descriptors and bundling.

Findings are published in Carolin Hagelskamp, Celina Su, and David Schleifer (2023) “When Participatory Budgeting (PB) funds schools, who benefits? An equity analysis of PB-associated investments in NYC public schools,” Local Development & Society.

This research was supported in part by a grant to Public Agenda from the Democracy Fund. The findings are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Democracy Fund.