Do Welfare Benefits Pay Electoral Dividends? Evidence from the Food Stamp Program Rollout
35 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2016 Last revised: 28 May 2018
Date Written: May 24, 2018
Given conventional scholarly wisdom about the "feedback effects" produced by most social welfare programs, it is hard to reconcile continued government funding for welfare with the notion that politicians are motivated primarily by electoral considerations. Why would re-election minded incumbents target benefits to the most politically marginalized citizens instead of spending government funds in other ways known to produce more certain electoral rewards? I offer evidence to resolve this apparent puzzle, documenting that welfare can indeed pay dividends at the ballot box. Taking advantage of the staggered decade-long rollout of the American Food Stamp Program, I can credibly estimate the causal effect of this new benefit on election outcomes. Overall, I find that Democrats -- at the center of the program's enacting coalition -- gained votes when the program was implemented locally, apparently through mobilization of new supporters rather than the conversion of political opponents.
Keywords: welfare state, policy feedback, food stamps, distributive politics, retrospective voting, pocketbook voting
JEL Classification: H00, H5, H53, H7, H75, I3, I38
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation