Re-Engaging the Disenfranchised: Participatory Budgeting in the United States

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Review of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America, Brookings Institution Press, 2016.

Corin Mills, a young man from New York City, was not always confident in his ability to complete long-term projects, let alone attend college. He had dropped out of high school and served a brief jail sentence. Then, through an organization called Getting Out Staying Out, Mills became involved in participatory budgeting (PB)—a process in which community members, rather than elected officials, allocate public funds. Mills vetted project ideas pitched by his neighbors, and helped to develop a proposal for a mobile laptop lab to be shared by nine public schools. When his proposal won $450,000, Mills built upon his new skills and accomplishment to apply to and attend college; he even launched a successful scholarship crowdfunding campaign that movingly related his struggles.

These sorts of budget allocations—grants to add a computer lab to a library branch, a meal program for senior citizens at a public housing project, or a new gazebo at a park—are typically made behind closed doors. Depending on where we live, Boards of Supervisors, City Managers, or Council members might make their best guesses at what their constituents want, work with the city agencies they know best, or allocate funds to the residents who have the time, means, and temerity to complain the loudest.

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Re-Engaging the Disenfranchised: Participatory Budgeting in the United States

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