Beyond the “Usual Suspects”? Reimagining Democracy With Participatory Budgeting in Chicago

Madeleine Pape, Chaeyoon Lim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This article examines whether democratic innovations in the United States attract citizens who are typically underrepresented within existing political institutions. We focus on participatory budgeting, an intervention where residents decide how to allocate a particular pot of public money. Taking “PB Chicago” as our case study, we use survey and interview data to examine whether organizers realized their stated goal of involving residents other than the “usual suspects.” We find that residents who voted in PB Chicago were more often white, college educated, and from higher-income households relative to both the local population and politically active residents in Chicago. While these residents were not necessarily the most active across other stages of the PB Chicago process, we find little evidence that lower socioeconomic status and minority residents were accessing the civic learning and empowerment gains associated with participatory forms of democracy. Outreach made the process more inclusive but was insufficient to overcome several important structural constraints. Of particular note, the needs and interests of less privileged residents were not met by the narrow capital works focus of PB Chicago. We suggest that when implemented under such conditions, participatory budgeting risks deepening existing political and social inequalities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)861-882
Number of pages22
JournalSociological Forum
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • United States
  • civic participation
  • inclusion
  • inequality
  • participatory budgeting
  • participatory democracy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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