Does Relative Deprivation Condition the Effects of Social Protection Programs on Political Support? Experimental Evidence from Pakistan

The forthcoming article “Does Relative Deprivation Condition the Effects of Social Protection Programs on Political Support? Experimental Evidence from Pakistan” by Katrina Kosec and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo is summarized by the authors below.

Income inequality within countries is on the rise—a trend currently being exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend is notable given the growing body of research demonstrating that citizens’ support for and confidence in government is influenced by real and perceived levels of inequality. One of the key ways governments address poverty and inequality is through redistributive social protection programs, including cash transfers. By reallocating wealth, these programs, too, may affect citizen attitudes towards government. Yet, little is known about how perceptions of inequality moderate the relationship between social protection and political support. 

Classic economic voting theory focuses on absolute rather than relative welfare, holding that citizens reward the government for good economic outcomes and punish it for bad ones. However, an emerging literature in political science suggests that relative well-being considerations are important in shaping citizens’ assessments of their political leaders and institutions. Building on this research, we examine whether such comparisons impact the relationship between social protection and political attitudes. 

The empirical literature on how social protection influences political satisfaction and support is mixed. A number of studies demonstrate that receipt of targeted social protection programs increases support for policymakers delivering the program. However, other studies find that targeted government welfare programs do not always translate into political support. We posit that citizens’ perceptions of their relative economic standing can partially explain these mixed empirical findings. 

To test this hypothesis, we evaluate whether the effects of Pakistan’s national unconditional cash transfer program, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), on citizen support for and confidence in political leaders and state institutions are moderated by feelings of relative deprivation. That is, does receipt or non-receipt of the BISP differently affect political attitudes according to how well-off citizens feel compared to others? We do so by lveveraging a regression discontinuity design (RDD) overlaid with a survey experiment in Pakistan. In 2010, the Pakistani government used a proxy means test to identify BISP beneficiaries; this generated a cutoff wealth score which we exploit to assess the effects of transfers on political support. To evaluate how perceptions of relative economic position impact these effects, we conducted an original survey priming experiment, which subtly manipulated respondents’ perceptions of their relative economic position, modeled on several recent studies. 

We demonstrate that when feelings of relative poverty are not salient, cash transfers have little effect on citizens’ political support one to four years after transfers were first initiated. But, when feelings of relative poverty are salient, beneficiaries have higher political support than do non-beneficiaries. A natural question is: among those for whom relative poverty is salient, who is driving our effects? Is it that beneficiaries are more positive about their political system and leaders, or is that non-beneficiaries are more politically disgruntled? The short answer is, a little bit of both. However, the magnitude of the reduction in political support among non-beneficiaries is larger than the magnitude of the increase in political support among beneficiaries. 

The fact that we observe an effect among non-beneficiaries highlights that it can be problematic to view non-recipients of an intervention as a “control” group when assessing program effects; even if programs are randomly assigned, as we observed, non-recipients can be affected by the non-receipt of an intervention. 

In sum, we see clear evidence that individuals’ perceptions of their relative deprivation are an important moderator of program effects on political support – and there is a big risk for erosion of government trust due to not getting social protection when one feels deprived and thus deserving. Overall, our research illustrates both the power of beliefs to change political perceptions, as well as the power and limitations of government to mold and shape those beliefs. 

About the Authors: Katrina Kosec is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Their research “Does Relative Deprivation Condition the Effects of Social Protection Programs on Political Support? Experimental Evidence from Pakistan” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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