Building Equity Into City Budgets
Matthew Stitt '09 counsels public sector clients on how to change budgets and institutions in equal service of all residents.
After nearly five years as the chief financial officer to Philadelphia’s City Council, for which he helped analyze and plan multibillion-dollar budgets, Matthew Stitt was not finished with his hometown. Still, driven to use his municipal finance and equity expertise to help other cities, he switched to the private sector and joined public finance firm PFM in October 2020.
As a PFM director and its first national lead for equitable recovery and strategic financial initiatives, the Northwest Philadelphia native counsels public sector clients on how to change budgets and institutions in equal service of all residents.
His work especially seeks to confront the economic and social justice issues that the COVID-19 pandemic both laid bare and worsened in cities throughout the country.
For Stitt—a Haverford anthropology major and basketball player who wrote his thesis on the use of “stop-and-frisk” by police—these processes require municipal leaders to swap reductive, all-or-nothing mindsets for more inclusive ones.
“Budgeting for equity is not anti-growth, it is not a zero sum game,” he says about the framework, which has already informed Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported initiatives in New Orleans and Tampa.
He also cofounded a center focusing on these strategies last year. “But certain foundational systems need to be reset if governments want a better chance at improving upon the outcome.”
Stitt, who holds executive MPA and MBA degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Temple University, respectively, shares his perspective with future public sector leaders as an adjunct lecturer and distinguished fellow at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government, where he teaches the course “Critical Issues in Public Finance.” He also recently joined Haverford’s Board of Managers—the latest of several board appointments at Philadelphia-area institutions, such as the Greater Philadelphia YMCA, that have influenced his path.
Given your focus on public finance, why did you move into the private sector?
The chance to work with other governments around the country, on challenges they’re trying to solve, was something I’ve always wanted to do. Philadelphia City Council passes annual budgets that also inform what the long-range plan should be, and it was my team’s responsibility to advise and inform council members the best that we could. Over the years, we worked on many different initiatives that had to be aligned to meet the city’s larger vision of growth—particularly inclusive and equitable growth—and make sure that city operations are administered as fairly as possible and accessed at proportional rates. Finding a place where I could continue to work with governments on specific things that they want to improve on really led me to make a career switch.
What steps must municipalities take to build equity into their growth and recovery plans?
You could view governments on a spectrum. On one end, it’s governments starting to really figure out what equity means for them, which is a first, very critical step. Then you have governments who have figured that out and started changing their policies, practices, and procedures to more intentionally try to achieve those goals. What do I mean by that? I mean: What are your operating and capital budgeting practices? Who’s making those decisions? How is program impact being measured? Who is making resource allocation decisions? How do we know who is benefiting or not from certain programs? Are demographics proportionately benefiting or not from tax credit or burden? Before you set the goals, you’ve got to set the urgency. Whether through executive orders, ordinances, public hearings followed up by policy statements, protocols that trickle through the departments—the tone, through direction, is set early and strongly at the leadership level. But ultimately it’s creating that plan, creating that framework, figuring out what practices need to change to align to this plan, and then figuring out the best way to measure and refine it over time.
Why have you anchored your career in Philadelphia, and how has the city impacted your journey?
I was born to a single mother who had me when she was 17. She made an incredible number of sacrifices to send me to a Catholic school when I was young, because the neighborhood school where we lived, at the time, just wasn’t adequate. I played a lot of sports, and that’s where I got a lot of citywide exposure: I went to a very privileged school that was mostly white and higher-income during the day, and played sports on teams that were mostly Black at night.
I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to Germantown Friends School for high school, and obviously wanted to continue playing sports. Through sports, I continued to see disparities that exist even among people who just weren’t born with a silver spoon. It wasn’t that they weren’t as dedicated or ambitious, they were just born with fewer resources to achieve their goals. That led me to think: How can I, with all of this fortune and privilege that I’ve been given, that many people from similar circumstances were not, use some of that stuff to give back?
How did your time at Haverford impact your professional and personal lives?
The peer network I gained at Haverford is strong. I still stay in close contact with lots of Haverfordians, and that stretches across generations. There’s something about the way that Haverford teaches us how to think critically, and when I work with Haverfordians who are much older or younger than me, there’s always a commonality in how we think. We don’t always agree, but we think very similarly. Also, anthropology as a major really taught me how to be more intentional about removing biases and putting yourself in another person’s shoes. That’s incredibly valuable when working with clients and governments, and trying to teach them to think through a different lens.
What advice would you offer to a Haverford student or young alum inspired by your career?
We have an opportunity to do transformational work for governments and our communities, due to us living through a completely unprecedented pandemic that uprooted most of our lives. Lots of institutions are rethinking the way that they do things and want to recreate their processes to be better from a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint. The amazing skill set that Haverford teaches really preps students to enter this type of work, and I would highly encourage them to think about working not only for the public sector, but even for firms like PFM. Frankly, the more Haverfordians we can disperse around [equitable finance], the better I would feel about our chances of succeeding going forward.