For Richer or Poorer: The Politics of Redistribution in Bad Economic Times

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Political Research Quarterly


This paper examines the consequences of economic downturns for states’ redistributive politics. We track state policies from 1980 through 2010 and illustrate how economic downturns led states to adopt budget-balancing policies by suppressing both the increased spending on programs benefiting the poor otherwise expected under Democratic Party control and the tax cuts for the wealthy otherwise expected under Republican Party control. We also undertake a natural experiment case study—comparing the forty Democratic and Republican governors in office right before (2007–2008) and after (2009–2010) the onset of the Great Recession. We find that Republican governors were less likely to propose spending and increased calls for spending cuts; yet, no similar shift in tax proposals was evident with continued calls for tax cuts to the wealthy. Democratic governors exhibited a similar pattern, but were less responsive and more likely to maintain their earlier policy proposals even after a significant downturn in the national economy. Together, these findings highlight how economic and political conditions interact with one another to shape “who gets what, when, and how from government,” as well as clarify that we must ask and answer these questions separately for taxing and spending to capture the complex politics of redistribution.



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