Getting to No

Politicians love to say “yes” to their constituents, but sometimes social justice requires that we give policy-makers a little help in getting to No.


In 2006 Californians voters passed Proposition 84, a $5 billion bond measure to pay for water quality improvements and improved park access. As part of the language of the proposition investments in economically disadvantaged and park-poor communities were supposed to be prioritized. How’d that work out?


Jon Christensen of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, has analyzed about $2 billion of spending on park projects in California through this Proposition. He found that unfortunately large portions of the huge park and water-quality windfall of Prop 84 went to communities who were not particularly in need. Over half of the funding—56%–was spent in areas that already had better-than-average park access, while only 44% was spent in park-poor areas. Higher-income communities also benefited disproportionately, garnering 55% of the spending, while disadvantaged communities saw only 44%. And most starkly, Christensen reports, “[r]esidents in rural areas within a half-mile walking distance of projects saw $7,475 per capita in spending in their neighborhoods, while residents in urban areas saw $209 in per capita spending.”


Of course this all matters to public health because of the importance of healthy communities.  The results are just as shocking for the water-quality chapters of the Proposition: Communities with significant groundwater contamination didn’t get any more funding than those with none. “The distribution of funds in relation to groundwater contamination and drinking water quality problems could
as well have been random,” writes Christensen.



This is what planning by pitchfork looks like. Relatively wealthy and well-served areas are able to latch on to a significant chunk of spending meant for disadvantaged and park-poor communities. Promises that look like social justice are made just to get a $5 billion funding measure passed, only to be broken when the money is on hand to be doled out.


It’s easy to be cynical about results like these, but it would also be wrong. One part of the law called for “sustainable communities and climate change reduction, setting aside $400 for competitive grants administered by the State Department of Parks and Recreation. This chapter also required underserved and disadvantaged communities, but crucially, the definitions of these terms was formalized in law through Assembly Bill 31. A “critically underserved community” is one with “less than 3 acres of usable park land per 1,000 residents,” and a “disadvantaged community” as one with median household income less than 80 percent of the statewide average.”


Using these concrete and objective definitions keeps policy-makers accountable to the social-justice purpose of the law. And it enables them to say no to the lobbyists and wealthy supplicants who would like to see this taxpayer-funded bounty end up in their own communities. The results were starkly different to the rest of Prop 84.


Of the $384 million spent so far, 77% was spent in park-poor communities, and 87% was spent in disadvantaged communities. An impressive 68% was spent in urban communities that are urban, park-poor and disadvantaged. This is what social justice policy looks like when done right.


Explicit definitions of program goals around social justice issues are an essential part of getting public officials to do the right thing for public health. Most public officials and policy-makers probably want to do the right thing, but they get a lot of pressure from entitled groups. Sometimes they just need a little help in getting to No.

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