Natália S. Bueno — 2019 Harold D. Lasswell Award Recipient

The American Political Science Association (APSA) will present the Harold D. Lasswell Award to Dr. Natália S. Bueno at the 2019 APSA Annual Meeting & Exhibition, the world’s largest gathering of political scientists and source for emerging scholarship in the discipline.  The $1,000 award, supported by the Policy Studies Organization, recognizes the best dissertation on public policy.

Natália Bueno is an assistant professor at Emory University.  Her research interests are comparative politics, public policy, political economy, and race and ethnicity.  Natália studies the political logic of nonstate welfare provision, provision of public goods, the political effects of public policies as well as the causes of the underrepresentation of racial groups in electoral politics.  She received a Ph.D. in Political Science and a M.A. in International Development Economics from Yale University.  Natália has also worked at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning in São Paulo and at the Institute of Applied Economics.

Here is what the Award Committee had to say about their decision:

The Distributive Politics of Non-State Welfare Provision advances a novel theory of welfare state provision—one that emphasizes the political relationship between elected officials, who make funding decisions about social services, and nongovernmental organizations, which deliver them.  The study develops clear hypotheses and uses a variety of qualitative, quantitative, and experimental data to carefully test them.  The result is an original and important study that will be widely read and cited by scholars of both American and comparative public policy.

The study’s core argument is that non-state, nonprofit organizations that provide public services may see themselves as apolitical actors, but they are also deeply involved in distributive politics around the world.  In 35 countries, these charitable organizations receive approximately 50% of their budgets from the government, and they use these monies to provide social services to voters.  In implementing welfare state programs through nonprofits, governments are behaving seemingly irrationally because they are denying themselves the ability to claim credit for these benefits.  Why wouldn’t political leaders want to provide services directly through government agencies, thereby gaining the ability to benefit politically from these programs?

The answer, the author argues, is that routing social services via nonprofit organizations allows incumbents to deliver social services to areas governed by political opponents.  If services were delivered via the local government, then the opposing party—which governs the local area—could simply claim the credit.  But if the program flows through a nonprofit, voters will not give the local leaders credit for the program.  So presidents and central governments use nonprofits to bypass local opposition politicians, avoiding the problem of credit hijacking.

The author provides a number of innovative tests of the argument by examining central government spending on social welfare programs in Brazil.  The author finds that when the opposing party controls a city, the central government is more likely to direct resources there via nonprofit organization, rather than the mayor’s office (and the reverse is true when a co-partisan sits in the mayor’s office).  This effect is particularly credible because the author uses a regression discontinuity design to look at close mayoral races, where an opposing party mayor just wins or loses, which allows the author to rule out other confounding effects.

The author also uses survey experiments to show that when the federal government disperses funds via a nonprofit organization, voters are less likely to give credit to the mayor than when the local government delivers the services directly.  So by channeling money through nonprofits, the central government robs the opposition of the ability to claim credit for social benefits.  In interviews with local nonprofit leaders, the author finds that organizations take these grants because they need the money and refusing them leads the government to shut out the organization from future grants.  But nonprofit leaders also noted that in exchange for allowing them to distribute these funds, local officials expected them to help with their next political campaign, and members of the organization are often called upon to become campaign volunteers.  So by channeling monies this way, central leaders not only prevent opposing-party rulers from credit-claiming, but also get a means of boosting campaign activism for co-partisans.

While the empirical evidence focuses on the Brazilian case, the argument is more general given the role that nonprofit organizations play around the globe, and hence it has broad-ranging implications for debates on distributive politics, clientelism, and social service delivery.  We expect this dissertation will be widely read by scholars in both American and comparative politics, and it will become a future touchstone for others working in this area.  For those reasons, we are proud to award this prize to The Distributive Politics of Non-State Welfare Provision.