Budgeting for equity

Strategy overview

  • Advancing equity through budgeting: By integrating equity considerations into their budgeting processes, local governments can use existing spending to advance equitable outcomes. Equity considerations can be integrated into the budgeting process in several ways: in the structuring of budget discussions and deliberations, in deciding where cuts are made during shortfalls, in engaging stakeholders, and in selecting which funding sources are used.

  • Bringing equity into the budget process: Localities can advance equitable outcomes by integrating equity into the structure of their budgeting process, their approach to making funding decisions, and their approach to collaboration. Structural changes, like establishing an Equity Office, can help ensure the locality executes on its equity mandate through its budget. Adding equity considerations to budget requests helps localities prioritize equity when making funding decisions. And localities can invite community members to participate in the budgeting process, such as by creating dashboards to share budget information or creating participatory budgeting opportunities.

  • Moving beyond across the board cuts: When local governments face budget shortfalls, many cut funding to all service areas equally. While across the board cuts are often perceived as fair, they can inequitably impact different communities that a local government serves, often disproportionately harming communities of color. By considering how budget cuts will impact access to and the quality of services, as well as how cuts will impact various communities, local governments can identify cost savings opportunities while minimizing the risk of exacerbating racial inequities.

  • Promoting equity through capital improvements: Local governments make significant investments in capital projects, but few have structured mechanisms to integrate equity considerations into their capital budgeting process. Localities should consider improvements to each phase of the process, from how community input is collected to how projects are selected and funded. Examples of these improvements include adding equity goals to scorecards for project selection and requiring set-asides on large projects to address equity concerns (e.g., anti-displacement measures along a new transit line).

  • Leveraging local funding sources and cross-jurisdictional partnerships: Local governments have options to raise revenue for equitable development projects beyond traditional mechanisms like property and sales taxes. More redistributive funding sources include land banks, community benefit agreements, and impact fees. For smaller cities and counties especially, partnerships with other jurisdictions in their region can be key. Such partnerships can enable more effective infrastructure decision-making and make larger projects more affordable to individual localities.

Target Population
Community-wide
Key Stakeholders
Mayor or County Executive’s Office, Budget Office, Civil Rights or Equity Office, Community Relations Office, Program Evaluation Team

What evidence supports this strategy?

Promising

While this strategy has not been subject to rigorous, independent evaluations, it is widely-recognized as a best practice among experts in the racial equity space.

How does budgeting for equity impact economic mobility?

  • Confronting legacy of structural racism: By incorporating equity considerations into local budgeting processes and prioritizing investments in residents and communities that have historically been denied access to opportunity, local governments can begin to reduce the impact of decades of racist policies that excluded communities of color and denied opportunities for upward economic mobility. 

  • Protecting communities from budget cuts: When cities and counties face budget shortfalls, many adopt across the board cuts without serious consideration for how those cuts may impact groups and neighborhoods differently. By considering equity in making budget cuts, local governments can minimize the type of disinvestment that harms communities most at risk.

Best practices in implementation

  • Integrate equity into the process: By systematically reviewing their budgeting processes, local governments can identify opportunities to integrate equity considerations into each stage of budgetary decision-making. This approach can benefit not only the general fund and capital budgeting processes, but also how local governments structure budget cuts.

  • Change narratives around racial equity: As local governments begin incorporating equity considerations into budgeting processes, changing narratives among internal stakeholders and the broader public is an important driver of success. Without a shared understanding of the historical role that government has played in creating inequities, internal stakeholders are less likely to engage in new processes. And without a clear external narrative on the factors that have driven racial inequities and the steps needed to confront racist legacies, public support for equity-focused budgetary decisions will be less easily secured.

  • Make data-informed decisions: Local governments can use data on the well-being of different groups and neighborhoods to identify where inequity exists. With this information, local governments can target investments to increase equity and identify decisions that could cause adverse impacts.

  • Engage the public: Enabling community members to participate in the budgeting process can strengthen equitable outcomes. Local governments should pay special attention to informing and including groups that are frequently underrepresented in decision-making.

  • Apply change management principles: When changing the budget process, local governments should use best practices in change management. Taking this approach emphasizes building support from key stakeholders, embedding changes in the organization’s culture and practices, and evaluating the effectiveness of the change.

  • Consider the long-term: Many of a local government’s most significant investments result from long-term planning processes, like the development of its Capital Improvement Plan. Integrating equity considerations into these processes is an opportunity to create large, sustained investments to drive equity.

  • Create accountability: To ensure local governments follow through with prioritizing equity, they must create mechanisms to hold themselves accountable. These can include developing clear, measurable goals to promote equity; measuring progress toward those goals; and communicating both goals and progress publicly.