Review Article

Understanding the Expansion of Latin America's New Social Welfare Regimes (Journal of Comparative Politics, April 2021)


Latin American countries have been characterized as being truncated welfare states with high levels of clientelist and informal provision. However, the recent expansion of social welfare programs targeted at the poor, such as Prospera in Mexico and Bolsa Família in Brazil, have brought millions of previously excluded citizens access to social welfare. This review article examines three new books analyzing the political dynamics underpinning variations in Latin American social welfare regimes. The article pays attention to how the transition to democracy and increased political competition has created the institutional context for the expansion of a variety of social welfare programs targeted at previously excluded citizens. The new literature makes several important theoretical contributions to the study of distributive politics in new democracies. It moves beyond regime type and party ideology and instead focuses on the nature of domestic political institutions and variation in citizen-state linkages within Latin American electoral democracies. Countries with robust political competition and denser social ties to constituents have seen the most robust social welfare expansion and non-partisan targeting that have undermined clientelist linkages. In low income and single party dominated settings, however, the political incentives for informal or clientelist welfare provision remain significant. Latin America’s experience of social welfare expansion offers important insights for scholars studying social welfare provision in other countries in the Global South.

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Working Papers:

Being Seen by the State: Cash Transfers and Women’s Political Participation in Pakistan

with Matteo Iudice, PhD Candidate in Economics, Brown University.


Does the successful implementation of programmatic cash transfers, that limit political discretion, increase marginalized citizen support for elected incumbents in new democracies? Can cash transfers targeted exclusively at low-income women increase linkages with political parties and local government in settings where gender gaps in participation are high? This paper addresses these questions by analyzing the political effects of one of the largest unconditional cash transfer programs targeted at women: the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). The paper presents findings from an original household survey of 2254 respondents, which uses a regression discontinuity design to analyze the political behavior of program recipients and non-recipients close to the eligibility cutoff. In contrast to studies that suggest that the implementation of programmatic cash transfers lead to increased incumbent support, we find no evidence that the BISP cash transfer resulted in increased electoral returns for the benefit-giving party, or two subsequent incumbents who claimed credit for the program. Instead, we find evidence that access to programmatic cash transfers has helped reduce program recipient’s economic dependency on rural patronage institutions, such as landlords (zamindars) and traditional village governance (panchayats). However, this reduction in dependency on traditional patrons has not increased program recipients’ wider democratic engagement with the local state or political parties. These results suggest that programmatic cash transfers can insulate poor program recipients from patronage, they are less successful in generating information about other aspects of government services that are important to motivate long-term democratic participation in new democracies.

Manuscript available upon request

Poverty Targeted Cash Transfers & Attitudes Towards Redistributive Policies (Under Review)

with Matteo Iudice, PhD Candidate in Economics, Brown University.


Does long-term exposure to a cash transfer program targeted at low-income women change their preferences for redistribution? Do cash transfer programs, implemented in high poverty settings, crowd out preferences for traditional types of welfare such as public schools and hospitals? We study these questions by analyzing the impacts of Pakistan's Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), one of the largest unconditional cash transfer programs targeted at women. We use a regression discontinuity design to estimate the impacts of the BISP cash transfer on women's attitudes towards a range of redistributive policies. Compatible with theories of redistribution, we find that female recipients of the cash transfer program reduce their preferences for redistributive social policies. However, we provide evidence that this shift in preferences is not the result of an income effect. We propose a mechanism that draws attention to variation in women's intra-household agency and we suggest that, in households in which women's agency is not challenged by senior household members, female beneficiaries see greater utility of a cash transfers compared to traditional welfare provision.

Pre-Analysis Plan:

The Political Origins of Programmatic Social Policy Expansion in Hard Settings


Under what political conditions do programmatic social welfare programs emerge in new democracies where citizen-state ties are weak? How do these social welfare programs become institutionalized in settings with high levels of political instability.This paper addresses these questions by analyzing the political origin of Pakistan’s flagship safety net: The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), one of the largest cash transfer programs targeted exclusively at women in the Global South. The case study of BISP is particularly insightful to address these questions, as the program emerged under conditions of weak democracy and high levels of political unrest in 2008 and expanded under two electoral cycles (2013 and 2018). Although BISP initially gave politicians discretion over selection of beneficiaries, the program subsequently implemented a technocratic method of targeting that significantly reduced patronage and rapidly expanded social welfare to millions of Pakistan’s poorest and most excluded citizens. I use a process tracing, analyzing key informant interviews with politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats involved in policy design and implementation, as well as secondary data such as social expenditure data, policy reports and party manifestos to explain the emergence and transformation in the design of BISP . The paper points to both domestic and international incentives for programmatic policy adoption. argues that a democratic opening and political competition created the necessary domestic political conditions for social policy adoption in Pakistan. The need for both international legitimacy and financing from international donors such as the World Bank and the IMF incentivized three successive elected governments to insulate the program from political pressures. This paper aims to provide new theoretical and empirical insights on the political conditions that shape programmatic social policy design and expansion in new democracies in the Global South.