Prior to the late 19th century, trash in many American cities accumulated in streets, in backyards, in privies, in empty lots, and in crawlspaces underneath homes. There were no organized municipal efforts to remove the trash and, as they grew in size and density, cities became smelly, foul, and unhealthy places to live. In their book, The Politics of Trash: How Governments Used Corruption to Clean Cities, 1890–1929, authors Patricia Strach, professor of political science and public administration & policy at the University at Albany and a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, and Kathleen Sullivan, associate professor of political science at Ohio University, describe how this began to change. On this episode, Patricia and Kathleen discuss their book, the lessons we can learn about how cities develop new services, and how those lessons apply to some of the problems governments are facing today.
Patricia Strach, professor of political science and public administration & policy, University at Albany, & fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government
Kathleen Sullivan, associate professor of political science, Ohio University
Joel Tirado, director of communications, Rockefeller Institute of Government
Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.
Alexander Morse 00:02
Hey there and welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. Municipal trash collection is a relatively unremarkable part of everyday life for most residents in American cities. But this was not always the case. Prior to the late 19th century, trash and many American cities accumulated in the streets, in backyards and privies, in empty lots, and in crawl spaces underneath homes. There were no organized municipal efforts to remove the trash. And as cities grew in size and density, they became smelly, foul, and unhealthy places to live. In their book, the Politics of Trash: How Government Used Corruption to Clean Cities 1890-1929, authors Patricia Strach, professor of political science and public administration and policy at the University of Albany, and fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, and Kathleen Sullivan, an associate professor of political science at Ohio University, describe how this began to change. On today’s special episode, Rockefeller Institute Director of Communications Joel Tirado speaks with Patty and Kathleen about the book, the lessons we can learn about how cities develop new services, and how those lessons apply to some of the problems governments are facing today. Coming up next.
Joel Tirado 01:39
I’m going to start just by reading part of a brief summary of the book from the book’s publisher Cornell University Press. “The politics of trash explains how municipal trash collection solved odorous urban problems using non governmental and often unseemly means. Focusing on the persistent problems of filth and the frustration of generations of reformers unable to clean their cities, Patricia Strach and Kathleen S. Sullivan, tell a story of dirty politics, and administrative innovation that made rapidly expanding American cities livable.” Patty and Kathleen, thank you both for coming on the show today.
Patricia Strach 02:22
Thanks for having us, Joel.
Kathleen Sullivan 02:24
Thanks for so happy to be here.
Joel Tirado 02:26
So the book has gotten a lot of attention. And you know, you’ve heard some of your interviews on other podcasts and you talk to Jonathan Van Ness, which was really awesome. Maybe we can get to that at some point. But you heard me give the intro. Is there anything that you feel like we should add upfront before I get in and ask you how you got started on the research project?
Patricia Strach 02:52
No, we’re ready to dive right in.
Joel Tirado 02:54
Okay. So yeah, that’s that’s the question that the that first came to me is, you know, how do two people decide that they’re going to look at trash collection from 140 years ago,
Patricia Strach 03:09
We actually got a version of that question when we started this project, which is you know how two nice girls like you end up with, you know, garbage? And that was it, we actually didn’t start off to write a book about garbage or a book about corruption. Kathleen and I are really interested in how governments solve problems and the resources they use to solve problems. And there’s a lot of textbooks and books which talk about the formal resources that governments use things like officials and agencies and ordinances. But we didn’t know so much about the informal or unofficial resources that governments use. And that’s really where our interest came in, is to understand how do governments solve a pressing problem? And what resources do they use to do it, and how we came to choose 19th century trash collection is that it’s a really great case. So in the 19th century, Americans moved to cities, cities became very crowded, and they became very, very dirty places. Because the traditional ways of disposing of trash which are burning it, burying it, or feeding it to the pigs just didn’t work anymore, when you have all of these people living in this very crowded space. And so, you know, the question is, at the same time across cities and cities across the country, officials had to do something about this problem. So what did they choose to do and how did they do it? That’s how we that’s how that’s our long and winding road to looking at garbage.
Kathleen Sullivan 04:46
And I remember when we were looking around for our case study, we were looking around for really basic practices of governing and you know, most political scientists study federal, they study politics at the federal level. But we wanted to get really basic and that took us local. And I do remember we were down to sewerage or water provision or garbage. So we did have some choices. But you really, you can’t get any more basic than that right about local governments providing for immediate needs.
Joel Tirado 05:21
Absolutely. It’s, you know, it’s, it’s a reminder on my phone every week that comes out, bring, bring out the trash. And it’s, it’s kind of amazing to me sometimes that that system works. Because it is the government saying, we will take care of a lot of this for you, but you got to meet us part of the way there, literally, you got to get to bring the stuff out to the street or the alleyway or wherever. So I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit about the challenges that were posed by by that piece as well. Before you had these programs, you had some pretty awful conditions in cities. And one of the passages that you include in the book is from the Charleston News. And it’s, you know, it’s probably 250 words describing all of the waste products that were making their way out into the street. And I remember just being like, this is a great, great 250 words on just how gross this is. So cities had these problems, because they were growing, right? This was a time of of like, increased density and increased size in cities. So at what point did they say, Well, we got to do something about this, like, how did it come about that there was like a certain threshold that was reached that they were that, you know, municipal leaders said, we got it, we got to do something now what what happened?
Kathleen Sullivan 06:58
Yeah, so 19th century cities were such a mess. And, and yet that mess was tolerated for so long, right? Because people just took care of their own garbage. So they might bury it in their backyard, maybe once the city got sewers, they had an old privy, and they’d bury their garbage in their privy, or they dump it on an empty lot, or in a nearby river, or maybe a farmer would come by, and they’d give them their food scraps, so he could feed their pigs. And somehow that was okay when residents were spread out. But as cities became concentrated, you know, people dumping on an empty lot might might reach a height of 16 feet as it did, as was told in Pittsburgh, so once cities got to be concentrated, these kind of individual methods of disposal just weren’t tolerable anymore. But what we find is that even though the wave of garbage ordinances was in the 1890s, sanitarians had been arguing for this for decades, they saw how important it was to collect trash, because they saw it not just as the trash itself. And I mean, that was bad enough, right. It invites vermin. But if people are varying their garbage in their backyard, and they live on a hill, when a rain comes, that is spreading that waste down the hill into the water supply, and then that could lead to other public health problems. So even though sanitary has wanted it for a long time, it didn’t click until the 1890s.
Patricia Strach 08:32
And I think one of the important lessons that come out of this book is Kathleen is saying that cities are really dirty, and they’re really disgusting. And we’re tolerating a level of filth that, you know, we look back with, you know, fondness in the past would would not be something that we would find pleasant at all today. But just because there’s a problem doesn’t mean that anyone is going to do anything about it. Right? So there has to be some sort of motivation or some sort of spark, that city officials have to do something about this problem. And that’s where we find corruption comes in. These a lot of these cities, they were very corrupt at the time. And then they have this corruption motivates city officials. It gives them the political will. So suddenly, this becomes a problem they want to take on because they can benefit politically or financially from it.
Joel Tirado 09:28
That is, you’re teeing up my next question. And I just love this. Love this line that you had, which was the logic of corruption is the most important factor to explain why municipal governments chose particular garbage strategies. And what you’re saying too, is not just the particular strategies that they chose, but that they chose to do anything at all was also the logic of corruption. You know, they saw an opportunity here to benefit themselves.
Patricia Strach 09:57
One of the things that we found really interesting when we were Looking at this project is that so cities have the same problem, but they’re not solving it the same way. So we were really curious, why aren’t cities doing the same thing? Why aren’t they setting up the same kinds of collection systems? Why aren’t they setting up the same kinds of disposal systems. And it turns out that they’re choosing first, first of all, their decision to do something is motivated by corruption. But then the decision of what they’re going to do is also motivated by corruption. So in Pittsburgh, for example, Pittsburgh is run by a political machine, and it is the city treasurer, and it’s this street paver, and they work together. And so the city of Pittsburgh is really innovative in the late 19th century, and it is doing you know, putting in water and it is paving the streets, and it is initiating garbage collection programs. And it’s doing all of that, because when you put in a sewer system, you have to rip up the streets. And when you rip up the street, it has to be repaved. And the paving contractor is part of the political machine. So what they’re choosing to do and how they’re choosing to do it in Pittsburgh, they’re giving out a contract, and they’re contracting to this paving, that’s machines, brother, basically, it’s a front for the machine. So they’re finding a way to enrich themselves. They’re doing all of these great, great services that promote public health, but they’re doing it because they’re giving themselves the contract. And they’re making lots of money. I don’t know if Kathleen wants to illustrate with another city.
Kathleen Sullivan 11:36
As you were saying, but in fact, in Pittsburgh, they, the contract goes to the brother of the party boss, but that contractor invests in this method of disposal, that’s called reduction, that was actually the highest technology of the time, that was the methods that sanitarians really recommended. But it was expensive to invest in all the infrastructure to put up a disposal plan. So oddly enough, Pittsburgh, one of the most corrupt cities we studied, invest in this reduction plans. And so we it really hit home for us that corruption really could be an incentive to try the newest latest gadget in sanitation in the 1890s.
Joel Tirado 12:19
So this was a thing that really struck me repeatedly, when I was when I was reading this book. Because I was imagining the, I was really imagining myself like, how are we going to try to write this? How would I contend with this idea of corruption as a resource? I just, and I thought you handled it very well. But I’m curious to hear some of the thought process, I’m sure there must have been conversations about this. Because, you know, you speak about corruption in this way that is almost divorced, a little bit at times of any ethical judgment on corruption, you’re speaking of it just sort of strictly as this resource like any other, like a natural resource or like a human resource and capacity in all these different ways. Is it difficult to write about something, you know, we think of corruption is just so just inherently wrong. And I guess antithetical to good governance. But in some ways, you’re saying that that wasn’t the case in these different cities. So how do you go about writing about that in, in what is in some cases, a positive way, corruption as a positive contributor to innovation?
Kathleen Sullivan 13:49
Yes, so we had to suspend our normative judgment, right? Of course, we saw these things as bad, but they also were describing what was at the time. And because we were following this question of what resources do governance rely on, this counted as a resource that we could look at. And so rather than cast aside corruption, because of our own initial ideological reactions, we were able to see the institutional functions that corruption played. And, you know, as we continue talking, we can also show that turns back into a more critical analysis of acknowledging that that power is in government, maybe governments are modernizing, but they might modernize by relying on some of these old unethical standards. So let’s not pretend they’re not there.
Patricia Strach 14:43
Yeah, I think one of the things we we walked into this project we in no time say corruption is a good thing. We’re not advocating a return to corruption. They think for a lot of the ways that we think today and a lot of the ways the research is done is to say okay, once we push once we got rid of corruption, we were able to put in place all of these great reforms and clean cities up. And what we found is, no corruption actually incentivized these political officials to create these programs, which then these programs did, in many cases do really good things. And so it just makes a little bit of a murkier story. But it helps us understand how government works better than just pretending that there was this bad period in American history, we got past it, and then good things happened. And instead, that line bleeds through, like these people who did good things for very bad reasons. And they also did bad things too for bad reasons. And then, you know, as Kathleen talks about those legacies get baked into the policies and programs that are created. And those are the same policies and programs that we still use today. One of the remarkable things one of our cities is San Francisco, and San Francisco is using the exact same contractor, as when we were writing in the 19th century in the 1890s. So it’s the same company, the exact same company. And oftentimes, it’s the same technology. So we actually haven’t moved that far. It isn’t we never close that door completely.
Joel Tirado 16:19
Yeah, so let’s kind of take a second to summarize a little bit. So you have these really dirty cities, huge public health issues, then as you say, the logic of corruption comes into play, and the cities start to take on the trash pickup issue to varying degrees of success. And then are there changes to public health as a result, you write you write a bunch about the different epidemics that were hitting the cities time and time again, killing a lot of people. Did the trash pickup result in a real change in public health? Or was that part of the research that you looked at?
Patricia Strach 17:07
I think there was a huge change in public health. And you know, the the death rates in cities, there was a big disparity between cities and rural areas with Americans were dying in cities at much higher levels. Infant mortality rates were much higher in cities than in rural areas. And after trash collection, after sanitation programs, including trash collection, and clean water, and sewers were put into place that went down and people in cities lived longer. And so the transformation in American public health, so we can think about the country as a whole, happen through these kind of individual actions of city leaders across the United States. So if you look at the data, you’ll see that people start to live a lot longer once these reforms go into place. And it looks like the United States is doing something but it really is these actors in the cities across the country at the same time taking taking their actions. So yes, there was a transformation in American public health as a result of these reforms.
Kathleen Sullivan 18:15
And, you know, in terms of legacy, we still largely refer to garbage collection as sanitation, right, it’s still holds that initial purpose, even though people nowadays are talking about garbage a lot differently, right? They might be talking about recycling, they may be talking about zero waste. There’s a lot of different ways to conceptualize it. But we’re still using that fundamental public health purpose from 130 years ago.
Joel Tirado 18:45
So it would be fair to quote you a saying corruption saves lives them is that
Patricia Strach 18:51
No, no, okay, it gets there’s a lot of, you know, it did a lot of bad things, but we can say they, they were motivated by a corruption in many place to put these put these reforms into practice. So there may be good ends, they came from really bad motivations.
Joel Tirado 19:11
So you talk in the book about how governments use gender and racial hierarchies to develop and maintain their programs. And one example that you cite is using middle class white women to model desirable trash disposal behaviors. How did this strategy come to be? How did it come to be used? And and also what are some of the consequences?
Kathleen Sullivan 19:43
So if you look at the some of the archival materials of these women’s civic organizations from the 1890s, you might think that they came up with the idea of garbage collection. I mean, they really said it was their idea took credit for it, and it’s really something they were really active and yet, what we find is when some of these cities started their garbage collection programs, they kept those civic organizations out. These were political machines. And they did not want these very enthusiastic, engaged, civic minded women participating in their programs. So we find that women’s civic organizations got set aside, despite their very clear interest in garbage collection, and they got set aside for, you know, a decade or two. So we were really puzzled to find in about the 1910s, city started to reach out to those civic organizations. And that kind of, you know, made us attentive to it. And we thought, what is going on here. And what we figured out was that once cities got their garbage collection programs up and running, people were not complying, they weren’t, they weren’t, they didn’t have an app on their phone to remind them to put the garbage cans out, and they didn’t want to, and they didn’t want to use the can that the city wanted them to use, they don’t want to use a lid, they there’s all these things people didn’t want to do because they were used to doing things the way they used to. So cities seemed to realize that women civic organizations were very happy to educate their fellow residents in how to use a garbage can properly. And it became, you know, class based rather moralistic, they had a lot of handy tips, though, as well. And so they would, you know, have flyers, they would have little sessions where they would educate people Apparently in Louisville, they made a movie about the peril of garbage. And so they really used these kinds of cultural mechanisms and their class privilege to really educate people on how to do things, what we find is that that may be one of the things that turns garbage collection from being something that’s very clearly public, to seemingly private, that a person who takes care of their house takes care of their garbage, it’s a person’s personal responsibility to put out their garbage can properly. And it seems as though by having people internalize proper garbage can practices, it started to really get personal. And it may be one of the things that kind of made government invisible or not, not really visible in garbage collection.
Patricia Strach 22:23
I can’t say that there, there is an alternative. And this is what New Orleans did. So residents are supposed to put their garbage out in a garbage box at a specified time, they’re not supposed to put things like shoes in the garbage, they’re supposed to separate their trash. And they weren’t having any of it. So the mayor threatened to fine residents and to throw them in jail. And so residents were really upset and it ends up leading to kind of the collapse of the mayoral administration. So this is how hot button it is. This is how political it is. And so you have this kind of like a hard power approach compared to what cities start to realize like Kathleen is talking about the you take this soft power approach that you invite these civic associations in that you have the model this behavior, so that people don’t get all riled up, and you’re, and you’re not trying to throw them in jail, but they’re saying like, I want to be a good neighbor, I want to have a tidy house. And that is a much more effective way in terms of getting people to change their behavior and buy into what it is that cities want them to do.
Joel Tirado 23:32
There was a lot of racism baked into how these programs worked. Is there, you know, a city in particular, that you think really illustrates how that was? Or was it kind of uniform across all of the five cities that you looked at?
Kathleen Sullivan 23:52
So we knew that garbage collection is distributed according to racial inequality, I mean, people in the early 20th century, were doing reports, or publicizing it, that neighborhoods with people of color were being underserved at with infrastructure that continues into today. So we had that knowledge of different neighborhoods being served differently. And yet, what we found when we looked at annual reports is that none of that was being discussed by the cities explicitly. So what we did was, we were very attentive to the points when we saw public officials start to talk about race because that was a signal that something was going on because they otherwise ignored racial difference year after year. And so what we found was that different public officials would start to reference people according to their race. It might be garbage collectors, it might be residents, and they did that when they needed to do to deflect blame from the negligence of their own office. And yeah, I’ll send it to Patty now.
Patricia Strach 25:10
And so what we see happening across the cities is, is a mayoral administration will come in, they’ll take over garbage, garbage services, they’ll say it’s never been done better before ever in the city’s history. Clearly, that’s not the case. And the newspapers and residents are upset. And so to deflect blame, because now they can’t say it was the previous administration’s problem, because it’s their problem, they’re running the collection services, then they start to point out and say, well, it’s the collectors that aren’t doing a good job. And it’s these particular neighborhoods that aren’t putting their trash out or sorting it the right way.
Kathleen Sullivan 25:47
And that gets back into the women’s, sorry, gets back into the women’s civic organizations, it makes that a little bit more chilling, right? If there are neighborhoods who are being blamed for their poor personal behavior, when we know that they’re actually being underserved on a number of levels, then all of a sudden that racial inequality now looks like it’s personal habits that are to blame for that.
Joel Tirado 26:13
And as you mentioned, these practices of pickup that were pioneered, invented during that time, are strikingly similar to what we still have today, in a lot of ways. So it’s not difficult to imagine how some of the systemic racism that emerge from the creation of these kinds of policies persisted in trash collection, and in some cases persist to this day.
Patricia Strach 26:44
Well, that’s what we say when we say that, you know, these inequalities are these undemocratic resources get baked into policies and programs that we still use to this day. And originally, we were going to keep going, and then we just so much material, we had to stop. So we were going to follow trash collection farther.
Joel Tirado 27:06
Well, if you had, you wouldn’t, you wouldn’t have had such a beautiful book cover for the book. It’s, it’s so of the of the era, it’s really, really well done. So good on Cornell University Press for that one. Okay, so I want to pivot now, to talk a little bit about you sort of suss out five factors that governments need to effectively deliver services. Now, are these factors, something that you already had in mind going into the research? Or was it something that emerged from from the study of the, the archives?
Patricia Strach 27:48
So we did not have any sense of what governments were doing or how they were doing it, we were really open to seeing what they use and how they use it. And then we noticed that these kinds of resources that we’re talking about kind of slot into these different categories that the first thing government’s, first factor that they were using was expertise, they need to know how to solve a problem, they need to have information about the best way to deal with the problem. Now, one thing we found is that they can sideline that expertise, they don’t have to listen to it. And oftentimes they didn’t. But they need to know kind of the nuts and bolts like Kathleen’s talking about how to build these reduction plans. The second thing they need is political will, which I had mentioned earlier, they need to have a desire to do something about a difficult problem. And they need to have the political will that’s going to sustain them when things get difficult, which it always does. The third thing they need is capacity, they need the ability to actually address a problem. And here again, kind of corruption comes in and fills that gap in cities like Pittsburgh, when they have the machine, they have the the the infrastructure already in place to solve it. Now, the fourth thing they need is compliance, they need residents to participate in these programs. And this again, like Kathleen was talking about, it’s a huge deal that just because the government can stand up a program and buy the horses and carts and you know, tell tell people that they need to put trash out doesn’t mean that anyone’s going to do it. And the last thing they need is political cover. And which we just talked about in terms of being able to blame somebody else when the program doesn’t work.
Joel Tirado 29:34
I found this helpful in the way that you do when you’re reading a book or the way that I do I shouldn’t other people’s experience of reading book is probably different than mine. But, you know, I come across these five factors, you illustrate them well, and you know, return to them throughout the book, and sorted by the end of the book. And I’m laying there just thinking about my own city government and I found it to be a really helpful framework for just thinking through some of the some of the local news in a way that I wouldn’t have thought about it before. And so what I’d like to do is talk a little bit about these five factors in some of the modern contexts. You were writing this book while the pandemic was unfolding. And you’re watching in real time how governments respond to something that really shouldn’t be totally new to government, but it was a new pandemic, a new, you know, COVID strain to deal with. And so, in some respects, it’s like 1890s New Orleans, you have the need to develop this new capacity to address this problem. When you’re watching these briefings and reading about the moves that governments are making, were you thinking about these five things?
Kathleen Sullivan 31:13
Yeah, clearly, we were thinking about experts, right? Because when COVID began, there were experts. And if they didn’t know what was going on, they quickly were learning what was going on. And you could see in real time, those experts being sidelined, right, and we saw it with public opinion and the disinformation campaigns and the kind of disrespect for experts was happening as we as as the pandemic was unfolding. But we even though we could see that as someone living in the 21st century, I think we slotted it a little bit differently. This to us was an old story of experts being available by getting sidelined. So then we looked at political will. And we would think, you know, at both, you know, state, local and federal levels, we would, we would start to think about whether public officials were willing to step up into this fray and rely on the powers that they had.
Patricia Strach 32:11
And I think one of the one of the things that when we were watching COVID, unfold, it felt like Groundhog Day felt like, Oh, we’ve seen this story before. And people were aghast, like, oh, I can’t believe you know, we have these solutions and we’re not listening to experts. And then, you know, Kathleen, and I were sitting there like, of course, of course, this is, we’ve seen this story before. And like and then so Kathleen talked about expertise and political will. But we also saw this with capacity in terms of do can governments actually, you know, get these vaccines? Can they distribute the vaccines? Can they get residents to comply. And this was something that we saw with a lot of the disinformation campaigns and a lot of the pushback is how difficult that is, I think we take it for granted. And we don’t see how much we rely on people going about and doing the things we need them to do for public health. And that really brought to the fore all the kinds of things that we had seen in the past. And then of course, there was a lot of blame shifting happening at this time. And whenever you’re blaming somebody else for a policy not working it really, Kathleen and and I always like Okay, so where is this misdirection going like what are they trying to, you know, get us to avert our eyes from.
Joel Tirado 33:28
I guess, another area that I’d like to talk about, and it’s closer actually, to home, or closer to what the book was about, as you know, New York City has a rat czar and other cities have rat problems. So there is still a garbage issue. And from your perspective, and maybe from the perspective of this kind of framework, and it’s going to be different in different cities, of course, but where does some of the, where does some of the breakdown happen amongst those five factors in the current sort of rat problems that that cities are facing?
Kathleen Sullivan 34:13
So yeah, we do not live in New York City. And yet we can recognize that rats are a real problem in New York and other cities as well. And, and when we look at this serious rat problem, we also see experts and the experts can already tell us what, what to do, which is to remove the food source from the rats. And the way to remove the food source is to cover the garbage. You need garbage cans or garbage containers that are covered, and experts can tell you that. So where is the disconnect? Well, the disconnect comes from the five features.
Patricia Strach 34:50
And I think the two ones that really stand out are political will like so. So do local officials. Are they invested in this particular problem, and are they willing to put their political capital on the line to solve it? Like how far are they willing to go? And then the second one is the the compliance issue, right? The big problem in New York City and other places is that people are used to throwing their garbage out in trash bags. And so now telling them exactly what was happening in the 19th century, you have to buy a garbage can with a lid and you have to put it out. And they’re specifying the time it has to go out just like they did in the 19th century. And they’re getting the same kind of pushback that they did in the 19th century. We’re going to lose 150,000 parking spots, you know, you know, I have to build infrastructure in my home to keep the garbage because now I can’t just put it in a bag and throw it in the backyard until trash day. So the compliance issues will be really, really difficult.
Kathleen Sullivan 35:53
And actually, I see blame, too. You see a lot of blaming of the rats. Now, yes, the rats are a problem. But when you see public officials blaming the rats, we once again turn our gaze and look to see who’s doing the blaming, because somebody’s not doing their job. So we don’t like to blame the rats, even though they are we can we acknowledge it’s a big problem.
Joel Tirado 36:15
It’s really amazing how, you know, much of this is, you know, new time, slightly new problem, but so many of the same issues over and over and over again. And I think that’s one of the values that that I see is is in, you know, reading this book for me was kind of crystallizing those things, making them explicit and understood. And then being able to, to take that explicit understanding and sort of use it apply it to, to circumstances that you see to get sort of new information for yourself about what what might be happening and where the failures are. And so that was, you know, one of the things that I took away. You know, I want to talk about just briefly a few different groups. You know, if if you were to, you know, what, what might you hope that a local official, like a mayor, reading this book would, would walk away understanding.
Kathleen Sullivan 37:27
Yeah, let’s say you’re in a city that has established curbside composting, that is new, right, that’s that using new technology, you’ve relied on the technology, you’ve even mustered the political will to get that passed, and now it’s instituted? Well, your work is not done yet. Because now you’re gonna run into compliance issues. So people may not be accustomed to putting their food aside to send it out to be composted. They might have, they might have the buckets in their kitchen to store food, they might not like getting a compost bucket dirty, if if the city wants to really, really implement that composting program, they need to seriously think about compliance to about educating people, you know, having nice graphics, to let them know how it’s done giving them tips to do it well, and to kind of incorporate it into their private life. That is a really important part of this innovative program. And don’t blame the people if they do it wrong. Do it do the job better of educating them.
Joel Tirado 38:36
And what about state legislators, state legislators? Patty, you you have any thoughts on this at the state level is is it any different or…
I think, you know, one of the lessons is so much attention is on the federal government. And then local governments are really important in things like trash collection, but states play a big role in the, you know, the transformation of public health that we were talking about. And one thing that’s really important is their expertise, right? So state level boards of health, and it’s really easy to forget that there are these experts at the state level, but it really important that states invest in them and fund the kind of programs that they want to see happening at the local level and provide the support because there is huge variation in what local governments have access to, and the resources that they have. So again, states can kind of even that out and make sure that everybody can do can do something.
Joel Tirado 39:35
And you notice things like garbage collection and sewerage. These are these are matters that started out local and remain local. But if they depend upon only local funding, then we’re going to see reproduction of economic inequality, right if localities are responsible for this, so that’s something that state legislators can And I guess the last group that I would touch on as, you know, a resident or maybe in, you know, an advocate kind of those those two groups and you know, someone who is invested, but outside of the government structure.
Patricia Strach 40:17
I guess for advocates, I think the lesson is that even when you, even when if you’re an advocate, you don’t have the effect that you want in the policy creation stage, for example, you know, it is a long term process to get policies up, to get them running and to maintain them. And so even people that were sidelined for decades get brought back in and kind of, you know, encircled by the government because they’re necessary. And so I think that’s an important, important lesson, even if you’re not heard on one end, it doesn’t mean that the game is over or that you won’t have a voice. And I also wanted to talk about residents, I want to come back to what you said at the beginning with taking out your trash with the app that we don’t think about garbage as political anymore. And it is. And I think one of the big lessons for Kathleen and I when we’re writing this book is to think about how something that was so hot button that it can bring down the mayoral administration becomes something today that we think is totally non political, I have an app on my phone, I just bring out my trash, because it’s the right thing to do. That, that that is kind of just an enormous feat of governance. The government has convinced us or it has moved in such a way that we don’t even see it as government power anymore.
Joel Tirado 41:38
Well, thank you so much for talking with me for dealing with some of my jokes for for misquoting you. And I guess one last question that I would have before we sign off as you became known, and this research that you did is the garbage girls, so are the garbage girls going to get back together for for another book?
Kathleen Sullivan 42:05
We would love to, they’re still the rest of the 20th century to cover. We’re here for it.
Joel Tirado 42:12
Well, when it happens, we’ll be here to talk to you and, and we look forward to having you back on the show in the future.
Kathleen Sullivan 42:20
Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Alexander Morse 42:25
Thanks again to Patricia Strach, professor of political science and public administration and policy at the University at Albany and fellow at the Rockefeller Institute. And Kathleen Sullivan, associate professor of political science at Ohio University, for sharing with us the unique history of municipal trash collection, and how municipalities can learn from the past and provide new services to solve policy problems today. interested in buying a copy of The Politics of Trash? A link to the book on the publishers website can be found in the episode description. Did you like this episode? Please rate, subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest in public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcast and transcripts are available on our website. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado and Heather Trela for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time. Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation. Learn more at Rock institute.org or by following at Rockefeller inst. That’s Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]
“Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.
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