Politics

Politicians’ “Peanut Butter Problem”

Government officials are intensely aware of the political need to spread out resources equally but doing so means there probably won’t be enough to make a major impact anywhere.
by | March 2014
A man walks past an abandoned building in Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
A man walks past an abandoned building in Cleveland's Mount Pleasant neighborhood. AP/Tony Dejak

All mayors know that they can lose their jobs if they spend too much time and effort building up their downtowns and neglecting the neighborhoods. But what happens to city officials who go hyper-hyper-local, devoting time and resources to small parts of their districts?

Zack Reed, a member of the Cleveland City Council, has been trying for years to spruce up the area around a single intersection in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. Where a school has been demolished, he would like to see new or expanded recreation and mental health centers, along with a library, in hopes not just of improving services but attracting private investment.

His decision to attend to one small slice of his ward hasn’t always been popular. “At first, there was some pushback, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Reed says.

But he’s persevered. And he’s not alone. Atlanta Councilman Kwanza Hall tries through both the city budget and social media to direct more resources to an area called Boulevard, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the entire Southeastern United States. In Boston, the city has been devoting considerable attention to Dudley Square, hoping it can be improved as a hub that would do wonders for all of the city’s Roxbury section.

Government officials, like parents, are intensely aware that they must be fair in doling out attention; favoring one part of the city can be a political problem. But they also know that concentrating resources where they’ll do the most good can provide the greatest return on investment.

“There’s not enough money at any one time to fix everything,” says Joel Ratner, president of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, a nonprofit group. “If we don’t make difficult strategic decisions, the danger is accomplishing very little over a long period of time.”

Not all neighborhoods need the same kind of help. Some might require gang intervention, while others might be ready to launch as a commercial center, given a well-timed boost. Politicians always have to worry about the “peanut butter” problem—the need to spread out resources equally across their entire jurisdiction. But spending the same amount everywhere means there probably won’t be enough to make a major impact anywhere.

“If we can set aside the politics for a moment, the evidence is when you focus your resources, hard cash or other investments, you can begin to have an effect on the wider market and investment in the community,” says Erika Poethig, director of Urban Policy Initiatives at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

That’s why city officials are constantly starting pilot projects, putting money into developments that they believe are worthy and that hold out the promise of being replicated elsewhere. Countless mayors and council members have gotten into trouble for apparently playing favorites with neighborhoods—or have been accused of outright cronyism—so they’re always careful to preach the benefits that will spread from the targeted area to the surrounding community.

That’s the argument Zack Reed has been trying to make. Southeastern Cleveland has been practically devoid of investment for decades. Getting one corner of it alive and humming again would have spillover effects that would help Mount Pleasant as a whole. “This is going to benefit everybody in this neck of the woods,” he says.

Reed continues to make the case even though a restructuring of the city council means he no longer represents that particular corner of the city. “Ironically, it’s not even in my ward anymore,” he says.

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