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

Date01 September 2017
Published date01 September 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2017, Vol. 70(3) 590 –603
© 2017 University of Utah
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DOI: 10.1177/1065912917706549
Central to the exercise of political power is the enduring
question posed by Lasswell (1936): “Who gets what,
when, and how from government?” These questions are
inherently political ones with power, organization,
resources, and electoral concerns shaping the degree of
redistribution enacted into law. However, this policymak-
ing process occurs within a particular economic context
that shapes the resources available for redistribution
(Gray 2012; Plotnick and Winters 1985). To account for
this reality, political scientists frequently include mea-
sures of economic conditions as control variables in
quantitative studies of redistributive policymaking. The
aim of these controls is typically to separate the con-
founding effect of the economic context from the “purely
political” factors that we wish to understand better. Less
attention is paid to the ways that the economic context
may actually shift and shape the importance of political
factors in ways that both constrain political actors and
provide them with new opportunities to secure their exist-
ing policy priorities.
This limited attention to how economic conditions not
only affect—but change—the politics of policymaking is
surprising due to the extensive research in political econ-
omy exploring the interaction of economic conditions
and electoral politics—concluding that economic condi-
tions are central to public opinion and electoral outcomes
(Alesina and Rosenthal 1995; Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier
2000). Similarly, researchers have identified a role for
partisanship in shaping economic outcomes—with better
economic outlooks under Democratic Party control at
both the federal level (Bartels 2008; Fowler 2006; Hibbs
1977) and the state level (Kelly and Witko 2014). Kelly
and Witko (2014) begin to explore the role of policies as
mediators, noting distinct patterns of spending under dif-
ferent economic and political conditions. However, this
line of inquiry is rarely extended to the political economy
of redistributive or social policy, particularly studies of
policymaking in the American context (Barnes 2014;
Jacobs and Soss 2010).
To better understand how economic contexts alter
redistributive policymaking, we focus on one important
aspect: the business cycle, particularly economic down-
turns. Policymakers seem to respond to recessions and
other “bad economic times” by changing the balance of
redistributive policy through reduced spending paired
706549PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917706549Political Research QuarterlyRigby and Hatch
1George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
2Cleveland State University, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Elizabeth Rigby, George Washington University, 805 21st St NW,
Suite 601C, Washington, DC 20052, USA.
For Richer or Poorer: The Politics of
Redistribution in Bad Economic Times
Elizabeth Rigby1 and Megan E. Hatch2
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.
political economy, redistribution, political parties, policymaking, social policy, recession

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