Gravitating towards a City budget where people come first

Upper Valley DSA

November 29, 2020

On November 18th, 2020, the Upper Valley DSA presented our Care Not Cops proposal to the Lebanon, NH City Council. The proposal is wide-ranging, but can be summarized by our central demand: reallocate 50% of the Lebanon Police Department budget to funding human services and addressing community needs by 2022. While three-quarters of the residents who spoke at the meeting were supportive of the proposal, several City Councilors spoke reactively and dismissively in expressing their opposition. 

The most notable statement was made by Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara, who argued that providing more human services will cause people to “gravitate towards those areas where those services are provided.” It was a lazy and hurtful bit of theorizing, particularly in the context of the community residents who bravely shared their experiences as (or working with) low-income, BIPOC, or mentally-ill residents in an over-policed and under-served community. 

To give the Mayor the benefit of the doubt would be to interpret his theory as purely a dollars-and-cents argument, stating that such a plan would generate additional demand for human services that the City could not afford. At the same time, it is difficult to ignore the insinuations of such a theory regarding the “wrong kind” of people moving to Lebanon to take advantage of these services. It stokes fear that Lebanon will be “overrun” by people in need if it opens its coffers to them - not too different from the fear mongering tactics used by conservatives in debates over US immigration policy. Any way you spin it, this theory is illogical, unfactual, and dehumanizing. 

While the remark from Mayor McNamara is troubling, it would be wrong to single him out for it. In fact, elected officials in the core Upper Valley communities have used similar talking points to virtue signal about their desire for increased funding for human services without taking much action. A common talking point is that there needs to be regional and/or statewide funding and programs for health and human services. While an increase in funding of any kind would be a welcome development, there is little hope that such progress will come from the State of New Hampshire any time soon (see: no income tax), and similarly little evidence that committed efforts at direct regional coordination between municipal governments have been undertaken. Local funding remains the most readily-available and fastest means of delivering increased services for residents in need. 

Would there be a large influx of residents in need to Lebanon if human services were increased?

As discussed above, the Mayor’s theory is intended to deflect from addressing the immediate and well-defined human needs that exist in Lebanon now. Given the urgent needs that exist in our community, it is imperative that this theory be both disavowed and factually disproved. 

The Mayor’s theory quickly breaks down under basic logical scrutiny. Rental housing in Lebanon is largely unaffordable for low-income people. People living paycheck-to-paycheck without savings don’t have the cash for a personal emergency, let alone a down payment or security deposit. Low-income residents may not have access to a car, or the cash to hire a moving truck.

Furthermore, this theory ignores the drivers of migration for low-income households and residents in need. Because our capitalist system fails to ensure the basic structures for human health and wellbeing, low-income people in need mostly rely on their families or other private social networks for support. Moving to another community in pursuit of improved housing options or human services often means choosing between pursuing those services and abandoning their private support networks. Accordingly, government officials often overestimate the degree to which government-provided support services factor into low-income residents’ housing choices. 

Housing options and human services are examples of “pull” factors that could influence a person or family to pick a particular community to move to. However, when low-income people in need do actually move (and they don’t very often), it is often as a result of “push” factors, such as eviction, interpersonal conflicts, or housing conditions. Their moves are often the result of quick improvisation rather than calculated strategy. 

In fact, migration rates of low-income people in need in the United States are so low that the authors of one study noted that they could not generate statistically-significant conclusions from the numbers. 

People experiencing homelessness are often specifically impugned in these discussions. While these populations are often perceived to be highly mobile, research suggests that they are less mobile and less transient than sheltered people. Mobility aside, we could write a whole piece about why Lebanon is well-suited for a homeless shelter (access to public transit, central proximity to services, etc), but we can save that for another day.

Local population numbers here in the Upper Valley don’t support the theory that people move in response to human services. In fact, over the past six years we ran a basic experiment on this theory. In 2014, the State of Vermont implemented a Medicaid expansion, which significantly lowered the income requirements for enrollment in Medicaid programs. New Hampshire did not implement a comparable expansion until 2019. 

Under Mayor McNamara’s theory, you’d expect to see a noticeable migration of residents in need from New Hampshire communities to Vermont communities, particularly when so many in New Hampshire lacked insurance coverage of any kind. But it didn’t happen, at least not in discernable numbers within the core Upper Valley communities. Populations in Hartford, Norwich, and Hartland remained level or declined, while median household incomes increased. Populations in Lebanon, Hanover, Enfield, and Plainfield remained steady or increased.

Does it really matter if more people move to Lebanon to utilize human services?

It’s important to note that, while the Mayor’s statement was intended to present an objective counter to DSA’s proposal, such a statement is inherently informed by his own ideology. If there are immovable disagreements on ideology, then arguing the finer data points and research might just be a waste of time. Research and data matter, but so do people, their lived human experiences, and our communities’ response to their needs. 

Ultimately, it matters little if people move to Lebanon to utilize human services. What matters is if human services are provided to those who need them. City Council should divert police funding to human services to address the needs that exist here now, instead of waxing prophetically about unlikely regional and statewide funding programs and relying on unfounded talking points to defer action.

We hope the Mayor will listen back to the recording from November 18th and think about his remarks in the context of those who shared how they have been harassed or harmed by Lebanon police, and those whose needs are not met by current City funding priorities. We hope others will do the same. And we hope that future discussions of human services in Lebanon will be more focused on our collective humanity.

Where will the money come from?

The money can and must come from the current police budget (we wrote an entire proposal about this). Not only is the Lebanon Police budget bloated and out of sync with other municipal departments (who else can afford to spend staff time and resources wearing costumes, attending farmer’s markets, and handing out ice cream?), the act of policing is actively harmful to those same local populations that are in need. 

Our residents who suffer from mental health challenges, poverty, addiction, hunger, and housing insecurity deserve the City’s support, not armed suppression when they act impulsively or carelessly as a result of a personal crisis. Our City’s budget must reflect these priorities. To achieve this vision for a safer, healthier, and more welcoming Lebanon, we must disempower the police by cutting their budget and reallocating our dollars to supportive services and programs.

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