The power of ALL of us
Whether we trace our Cleveland roots back generations or are new arrivals, many of us came to this city hoping for a piece of the American promise. But today, Cleveland is the nation's poorest big city and many residents have lost faith in their city government to protect their interests. In the 2020 election, Cleveland's voter turnout hit record lows, which led Cleveland Votes and Policy Matters Ohio to conduct research to better understand why. Late Congressmember and civil rights icon John Lewis told us long ago that democracy demands we all do our part:
“Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.”
For Cleveland to live up to the promise so many people came here for, we all must work together to animate our shared values like freedom, community and equal opportunity. We can reinvigorate our democracy by ensuring our government and civic leaders respond to and care for all our people, no matter their race or how much money they have. This will require elected leaders, government officials and civic engagement groups to articulate a clear vision to the public and consistently listen to the voices that are too often ignored.
Recent electoral trends have shown a decline in voter turnout and civic health and pundits and politicos are quick to offer analysis of that decline without much data or thought. We wanted to hear straight from Clevelanders, so we worked with polling firm HIT Strategies to investigate the attitudes of people who do not frequently vote in elections. Our poll of 700 Clevelanders, including 100 unregistered voters, shows that even people who never or rarely vote care deeply about their communities and have high potential for civic engagement if elected leaders and groups working to turn out voters approach them with a better understanding of the issues important to them.
Like most people, the Clevelanders we polled want to live happy and healthy lives in safe neighborhoods. They reported health care and policing and public safety as their top concerns. While Clevelanders are concerned about and want to improve their communities, they don’t trust local elected officials to deliver on the issues they care about most. Many cite a lack of information as a major barrier and only a few were able to make a connection to their city council member.
To address these informational barriers, Policy Matters is joining with coalition partners to have deep conversations, share surveys and gather feedback from residents, advocates and community organizations.
Our recent reports, What’s In the Cleveland Police Budget? and Reimagining Public Safety in Cleveland speak to the issues that are top-of-mind for residents. These reports suggest innovative best practices for public safety and provide tools to grow a shared understanding of how our local budgeting process works. Clevelanders share a growing sense that something must be done, and they want a say in the “what” and the “how.”
The poll and recent Census Pulse data made clear Ohioans still need relief and that the economic impacts of the COVID crisis are still with us. Over the last three-months, 41% of respondents reported skipping a bill or paying it late, 19% reported not having enough money to buy food and 22% were unable to pay their full rent or mortgage. The end of the eviction moratorium and elimination of enhanced pandemic unemployment compensation benefits will compound these challenges and create barriers to trust in elected leaders.
Yet many Clevelanders still believe in the possibility of a just recovery. While the poll findings show a lack of confidence that elected leaders will deliver on the issues that most matter to residents, advocates and elected leaders can change that. Polling shows that residents have the most faith that city officials will use federal COVID relief aid make a change – to build stronger, healthier neighborhoods across the city. City leaders should not fail in delivering on this expectation. The community continues to have conversations about the best way to spend American Rescue Plan funds to help us all recover; if city leaders fail to engage in the discussion, it will not only hamper our city’s recovery but further erode public trust, and future civic engagement. Policy Matters has held numerous conversations with experts and produced multiple reports and our friends at the Center for Community Solutions are launching the Greater Cleveland American Rescue Plan Council to track how funds are spent across Northeast Ohio. This is a prime opportunity to create a new, equitable, democratic approach to investment.
At Policy Matters we believe our budget reflects our values, and that everyday people should be engaged in how elected officials chose to use our shared resources. That is why we support local efforts on participatory budgeting like PB CLE. Offering trusted information about the budget process and growing the conversation on a just recovery would be a powerful way to connect people who have been historically shut out of the decision-making process. We are grateful to stand shoulder to shoulder with organizations doing powerful work, building relationships of trust at the grassroots, in coalition and solidarity. When people see themselves in our government it restores confidence, and that confidence produces something transformational.
Participatory budgeting would take a big step to address the problems in our communities and allow residents’ voices to guide how officials’ direct funds from the American Rescue Plan. Consistent and high-potential voters could help Cleveland reimagine equitable civic engagement. If government officials want to build trust, they must do more to illustrate how we deliver results together, by working in community with partners on the issues that impact everyday Clevelanders' lives.
November is just the start: Democracy goes beyond elections. It starts with taking a step, like being a voter, showing up to provide public comment at a city council meeting, advocating for the issues you care about or sharing your civic voice another way. The Wednesday after election day we have an opportunity to bring our communities together across historic fault lines and deliver on the promise of our democracy. Whatever you do, I hope it moves us toward a more equitable democracy and that the people of Cleveland are heard.