Pittsburgh’s City Budget Should Give Priority to Those Most Impacted by our Current Crisis

Nthando Thandiwe |

This year has redefined what it means to reckon with our past, advocate for better in our present, and expand the possibilities for our future. The COVID-19 pandemic, the mass protests following the ongoing murders of Black Americans by police, the millions of jobs lost, and the growing climate crisis are all rapidly transforming our lives, exposing the injustices that have existed since this country was founded. But, we also have a great opportunity to create a country where everyone is safe and free and all of us can thrive, across the country and right here in Pittsburgh.

Too often, we choose instead to spend millions to militarize law enforcement and deny our communities the resources they actually need. Our priorities need to change if Pittsburgh is going to address our city’s racial and economic disparities. At the intersection of multiple crises, we have the opportunity to craft a city budget that ensures Pittsburghers can all care for our families, set our kids up to thrive, and have full and healthy futures.

Budgets are moral documents. They show who we are and what our priorities are. This year’s budget must address our most pressing challenges while also ensuring that we can all make ends meet, tackle this pandemic, and care for our families. Equity must not just be a word, but an act.

We all deserve to live in a city that works for all of us, where people of color, poor and working-class people are the focus of our investments; where people have what they need, where our neighborhoods and priorities are not pitted against each other, and all of our neighbors can thrive. But we have to start by putting our money where our values are. We need a budget that invests in communities of historic underinvestment, climate resilience projects where flooding and stormwater issues continue to threaten our homes, and affordable housing when people continue to struggle in paying rent and rising property taxes, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

We can now truly see that what drives our economy is the essential work of the nurses, home care workers, educators, daycare providers, first responders and working people who drive the trucks, stock the food, and keep our buildings clean. We cannot and must not use budget deficits caused by the pandemic to punish the people we depended on the most during this crisis. Pittsburghers are worried about their health and the health of their loved ones; remote schooling has put stress on families; unemployment and economic insecurity have risen drastically. The city lost one in every 10 of its jobs—15,000 jobs—from February to August and the unemployment rate was 11.9% in August 2020 compared to 4.6% in February.[1]

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, our region faced income inequality, extreme even by the standards of the world’s most inequitable rich country. In Allegheny County, income of the top 1% is, on average, 24.5 times that of the bottom 99%. This puts our county in the top 7% of the most unequal counties in the United States.[2] Pittsburgh has a moral and fiscal responsibility to address this crisis in the 2021 budget. Instead of calling for cuts to City personnel, the city should work with municipalities and state allies to make sure entities like UPMC pay their fair share. The City of Pittsburgh must explore alternative avenues of revenue that reimagine the budget outside of austerity cuts. Now is the time to join together to rewrite the rules so that when the pandemic ends, we can ensure every one of us can care for our families, earn a fair return for our work and protect the people who protected us during the pandemic.

Affordable Housing: The City of Pittsburgh supports affordable housing measures through a variety of budget expenditures. But more can be done. The Capital budget supported over $8 million in projects dedicated to affordable housing that are managed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Commission on Human Relations from 2017 to 2019.[3] In the 2021 budget address, Mayor Peduto stated a commitment to additional funding to the URA to invest in affordable housing. These measures are a step in the right direction, but they do not fully address the shortage of over 20,000 affordable housing units in Pittsburgh.[4] Furthermore, when the current CDC eviction moratorium ends on December 31, 2020, the affordable housing crisis in our region will be severely exacerbated. Rising unemployment from the COVID-19 recession along with the public safety need to quarantine and social distance, makes affordable housing for all a clear imperative and priority. 

Workforce Development: This crisis has hammered working people and low-income families and exacerbated existing inequities. Black citizens and other communities of color, prior to COVID-19, had significantly fewer cash reserves, lower incomes and a persistent wage gap.[5] And now, COVID joblessness has fallen most on vulnerable and low-wage workers—because many of them work in retail and hospitality—disproportionately impacting Black, Latinx and women workers.[6] Women and people of color that have been able to keep their jobs are overrepresented in “essential worker” roles, which puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. All of us have come to realize that we depend on these workers—who provide healthcare and other social services, work in grocery stores and deliver take-out food, and keep public transportation running. The city should redouble its efforts to promote strategic workforce development efforts that support low-wage workers, reduce barriers to employment and support entrepreneurship in neighborhoods impacted by historic disinvestment.

Public Safety: Whatever our race, background or zip code, we all want to move through our communities without fearing for our lives or our loved ones. The ongoing display of police brutality has exposed the need to improve public safety and reevaluate fundamental budgets and policies of police departments. The death of George Floyd along with countless other African Americans has shown how existing police policies conflict with the need to combat systemic racism. Modern proactive measures are needed to address police violence that is perpetrated against communities of color. Despite the need for us to reimagine public safety, the City of Pittsburgh has seen a 40% increase in spending on its police force, from a $71.5 million budget when Mayor Peduto took office in 2013 to about $115 million in 2020.[7] An equitable City budget must start to shift the police budget to focus on community investment in critical needs such as housing, jobs and social services.

 In Pittsburgh, we take care of each other. We need our city government to step in during a crisis, not step away. That means more than just responding to an emergency; it means investing for a future. The priorities and investments in affordable housing, workforce development efforts and public safety will help us weather this virus and set a better course for the future of all of our communities. This is the moment to make real, long-term changes that address our city’s glaring racial and economic inequalities. We must work with allies to secure more federal aid and federal fiscal stimulus, but the absence of such aid should not be an excuse for the city to cut government services or City personnel. The City of Pittsburgh must figure out ways to raise needed revenue from those with the ability to pay. It’s past due that the wealthy and big businesses in our city start to pay their fair share. We need to join together so that after this crisis, we ensure every one of us can care for our families, earn a fair return for our work and do right by the people who protect us.

 The Pittsburgh Budget and Policy Center is a project of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. The PittsburghBPC will continue to conduct credible analysis of the City’s budget to ensure the budget is equitable, transparent and works for all Pittsburgh residents.

[1] For city unemployment in August, see https://data.rgj.com/unemployment/pittsburgh-city-pa/CT4261000000000/2020-august/. (For February, replace August in the URL with February.) The Pittsburgh metro area’s unemployment rate for August was 1 percentage point lower than the city’s in that month, 10.9%, and came down to 7.8% in September. For metro area unemployment, see “Pittsburgh, PA Economy at a Glance.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov/regions/mid-atlantic/pa_pittsburgh_msa.htm.

[2] Estelle Sommeiller and Mark Price, The New Gilded Age: Income Inequality in the U.S. by State, Metropolitan Area, and County, an Economic Policy Institute report published in July 2018. Accessed at https://www.epi.org/multimedia/unequal-states-of-america/#/Pennsylvania.

[3] HR&A, “Pittsburgh Equitable Development Agenda,” Report to EJC July 2019.

[4] Mullin & Lonergan, “Housing Needs Assessment.” Report to AHTF, 2016, 60, https://apps.pittsburghpa.gov/dcp/Pittsburgh_Housing_Needs_Assessment.pdf.

[5] Gould, E., & Wilson, V. (2020, June 1). Black workers face two of the most lethal preexisting conditions for coronavirus-racism and economic inequality. Economic Policy Institute, https://www.epi.org/publication/black-workers-covid/.

[6] Ibid.

[7] City of Pittsburgh, Operating Budget, 2020 (p. 26) and 2013 (p. 10); accessed online at https://pittsburghpa.gov/omb/budgets-reports.

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