Austin’s democracy deficit hurts local median income

Wells Dunbar’s tumblr post of demographic data from the City’s African-American Quality of Life Initiative reminded me that there’s a local democracy deficit concerning municipal policies that might help boost median income. I visualize the family median income data below.  As you can see, overall family median income growth is sluggish, and perhaps most troubling is the fact that Hispanic/Latino family median income actually declined since 2000.

A chart of family median income in Austin, TX

So, why aren’t our local discourse and policies more aggressive on this front?

One part of the problem is the fragmentation of municipal-level public institutions that might be able to do something about it (AISD, ACC, City, County).  A second issue is that the current election design (at-large districts for City, lack of publicly-funded elections for all entities) makes it hard for more progressive political economy coalitions to form.  Third, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of civic density/community organizing around boosting median incomes.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that Austin doesn’t seem to create a lot of value with its human capital.

As a result of the current recession, I think there is greater recognition that we need to refocus on the growth of middle class median income.  Many of the effective policies for boosting median wages such as quality K-12, affordable higher ed, effective workforce development, and community support for private sector union organizing campaigns are all local efforts.  Add these to transit, corporate subsidization, and land use…and all of a sudden local policymakers possess a pretty extensive toolkit to contribute to median income growth in their region.  The question is whether proponents of such activism can get organized to empower local policymakers that want to deploy such tools.

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4 Responses to Austin’s democracy deficit hurts local median income

  1. That “toolkit” has existed for years, it’s just been long ago handed over to special interests.

    For reasons I don’t understand, the only groups that seem to matter anymore in local elections are the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Austin Alliance and the police union. Every bad management decision by the city in the last decade, and there have been a lot of them, can IMO be attributed to pandering by council to that particular nexus of special interests.

    • Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

      If you had to list a top ten of “bad” management decisions, what would they be? Why do you think alternative coalitions have such difficulty forming – or are they just waiting for the political and policy entrepreneurs to fill them up? It is odd to me that the discourse is so muted. I mean, a totally lost decade in median income growth for Latinos is a pretty big policy failure; it should get a lot more urgency.

      • Way too many bad mgt decisions to list, but you’d have to start with the police union contracts that gobbled up most of our tax revenue growth in the last decade. Whenever resources are spent that should help resolve the income split you describe, they’re often funneled through systems riddled with self-interest and/or corruption – e.g., witness spending of CBDG money and central east Austin zoning decisions. Funneling tax dollars to developers/contractors who then fund incumbents campaigns is a biggee. Lately, building a half-billion dollar, environmentally problematic water treatment plant we won’t need for 20 years comes to mind – seemingly every contractor in town got a piece of that one and the water utility director openly called it “stimulus” spending. There are more.

        As for “alternative coalitions have such difficulty forming,” the short answer is campaign finance reform hurts grass-roots candidates more than the pro-corporate ones. Communications is expensive and campaigns can’t raise enough to get a message out. Meanwhile, the chamber, DAA, RECA and the police union run their own, independent campaigns on behalf of candidates they endorse, sometimes collectively outspending the candidates they support and dominating discourse.

        There’s an argument to be made single member districts would help, but I’m not thrilled with how they work in other cities – witness Dallas, God help us – and personally think just abolishing the campaign finance limits would be a better fix.

  2. Julio Gonzalez Altamirano says:

    Re: your point about “campaign finance reform”: I think it depends on the policy being touted as reform. A voluntary, publicly-funded matching fund for relatively small, local donations would help candidates that are not part of the established interests. If anything, such a fund would help candidates get the resources for communications. I think you are referring to perhaps expenditure limits or donation size limits. That’s not what I am advocating. I agree with your diagnosis on the need for resources and think that the voluntary, public-financed model has a decent enough track record.

    As for the single member districts, I agree that they might be helpful, but could empower self-destructive politics. In general, I tend to favor them for Austin, but only if add more seats to the council.

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