Does clientelism hinder progressive social policy in Latin America?

Abstract

Latin American welfare systems are truncated and marked by regressive spending patterns. Contributing an electoral microfoundation for the endurance of narrow social policies in the region, we argue that clientelism hollows out support for welfare progressivity. On the one hand, clientelism distorts the link between the vested interest of low-income earners and redistributive policies so that the poor are more likely to support parties with a residualistic social policy agenda; by paying off the poor in return for their vote, clientelistic parties gain greater leverage to pursue liberal social policies. On the other, clientelism induces uncertainty in the provision of public goods among middle and high-income earners, which makes them more likely to opt for residualistic social policies as well. We investigate how clientelism influences electoral support for parties with residualistic social policy platforms by merging information on party strategies from an expert survey with public opinion data for Latin America. Findings confirm that clientelistic practices have an impact on the electoral support for political parties which promote a liberal welfare state.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We refer to progressive and residualistic/liberal social policies in order to emphasize the distributive outcome of social protection programs. We associate progressive social policy with universal access to welfare benefits (e. g. universal healthcare programs such as Seguro Popular in Mexico or SUS in Brazil). A residualistic welfare state is “characterized by narrow social insurance coverage and a strong reliance on private-type institutions of social protection” (Mares and Carnes 2009, p. 95).

  2. 2.

    Our focus lies on the vertical links between citizens and clientelistic parties, for horizontal linkages and clientelism see Das and Maiorano (2019), as well as Gherghina and Volintiru (2017).

  3. 3.

    Even high-income earners can have in interest in a more progressive social protection system as investment in human capital (education and healthcare) can raise the country’s productivity and economic growth.

  4. 4.

    Items E3 and E2, see Research Design chapter below for item wording.

  5. 5.

    Items D1 and D3, see Research Design chapter below for item wording.

  6. 6.

    One might contend that clientelism works as an equivalent to the welfare state itself, since it also provides benefits like employment or access to social security programs (see Hilgers 2011). However, clientelism differs from a normal welfare state in how social security programs are allocated and in the conditionality of the exchange of benefits (see Stokes et al. 2013; Nichter 2018). Non-programmatic social policy is unable to harmonize the income distribution as clientelistic benefits are exclusive in nature, supporting the persistence of truncated welfare systems (see Weyland 1996).

  7. 7.

    Nevertheless, the socio-economic dimension is highly relevant for voters in the Latin American context (e.g. Wiesehomeier and Doyle 2012).

  8. 8.

    Due to DALP’s operationalization of D3, we cannot map social policy along the classic concepts of universal, contribution-based and targeted/means-tested programs.

  9. 9.

    In LAPOP’s direct question on voting behavior (VB3) respondents are asked to indicate their preferred presidential candidate or pre-electoral presidential coalition. But we cannot identify party preferences with this item as party’s and president’s ideological positions do not always overlap, responses on coalitions do not allow a clear identification of individual parties, and the non-response rate is high. We acknowledge that there might be a sampling bias as we oversample those individuals which indicate a party preference. However, individuals who reveal a party identification might be the most active voters in the electorate and thus, they represent the most relevant voters for the proposed theory. Testing how non-response on the item party preference is influenced by socio-demographic factors (age, gender, income, education and employment status), we find that male, employed, older, and well-educated individuals are most likely to reveal a party preference (results are available on request). Moreover, middle-income earners also have an increased likelihood of responding compared to low-income earners. The coefficient is not significant for the high-income group, meaning that our sampling strategy oversamples middle-income earners, a fact which needs to be kept in mind for the interpretation of results.

  10. 10.

    To address concerns regarding the discrepancy between clientelistic efforts and effectiveness (see Kitschelt and Altamirano 2015), we take advantage of another item provided in the DALP survey (B11), which asks experts “how effective political parties are in their efforts to mobilize voters by targeted benefits”. The item runs from 1 (not at all effective) to 4 (to a great extent effective). Following Kitschelt and Altamirano’s (2015) approach, we use parties’ aggregated mean expert responses and weight them with their seat share to calculate the country level effectiveness of clientelism (see Figure S2 in the supplementary material). We then subtract these scores from the country’s level of clientelistic effort to generate a variable that captures the “effectiveness gap”. The estimation results from this robustness check are provided in the supplementary materials in Table S10. Our results remain substantively unchanged.

  11. 11.

    Descriptive information for the distribution of income groups across countries is provided as supplementary material. We also estimate the model with income as continuous measure in interaction with clientelism. The estimation results support the findings displayed below and are provided as supplementary material. Additionally, we use an alternative measure of income (asset indicator) in the robustness section.

  12. 12.

    This control variable is calculated in the same way as our main independent variable for clientelistic party system.

  13. 13.

    To check the robustness of our findings we make use of Rothstein’s (2011) ‘impartiality’ indicator, which measures the quality of the government as proxy for state capacity. We also add GDP per capita to hold constant the country’s economic development status, as welfare generosity is constrained by resource scarcity. Our findings remain robust. Estimation results are provided in Tables S9 as supplementary material.

  14. 14.

    Technically speaking, the DV is constrained by a floor and a ceiling; however, since the range is quite large and as it is not a categorical variable, we decide to use a linear model. Moreover, the hierarchical model is already quite demanding regarding the scope of the data, so a linear model is considered reasonable.

  15. 15.

    The Likelihood Ratio test indicates that the cross-level interaction increases the model fit.

  16. 16.

    Except for clientelism, the model controls for the same set of controls as in Model 1. The estimation table is provided as supplementary material (Table S5).

  17. 17.

    Overlapping confidence intervals indicate that the income groups as such are less distinguishable from each other.

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Acknowledgements

Previous versions of this paper have been presented at University of Bath, University of Cologne, and University of Zurich. Our work benefited from critical comments and thoughts raised during these events. We are particularly grateful to Herbert Kitschelt, Silja Häusermann and the participants of the workshop on “Clientelism and the Quality of Public Policy” at the ECPR Joint Sessions 2014, Salamanca, for helpful comments and suggestions. We thank the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) and its major supporters (the United States Agency for International Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, and Vanderbilt University) for making the data available.

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Berens, S., Ruth-Lovell, S.P. Does clientelism hinder progressive social policy in Latin America?. Acta Polit (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41269-020-00189-x

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Keywords

  • Clientelism
  • Social policy
  • Representation
  • Latin America