I am looking for empirical evidence that making direct monetary payments to targeted groups of deprived people -- say paying all families living in a certain poor district fifty dollars every month, similar to a guaranteed basic income (see Wikipedia) or what the charity GiveDirectly does -- can provide short to medium term political benefits to the government (local, regional, national, other) doing it, as well as under which circumstances the political benefits might be particularly high per dollar spent compared to other forms of subsidies or spending.

Political benefits might include increased government popularity, increased political stability, decreased crime rates or decreased ethnic tension. Circumstances might include a target group (urban community, rural community) and overall political situation and structure (form of government, economic climate, situation of peace or conflict).

Dollars are used here as the typical reference currency. Potential sources of empirical evidence might include studies of Brazil's "Bolsa Família" programme.

Comments about who might be well placed to, or interested in helping answer this question, are also very welcome. The Effective Altruism forum was already suggested elsewhere. Suggestions for better tags are also welcome.

Edit for clarification: this question is specifically about the political benefits to the donor, not the benefits to the receivers.

Edit: my motivation for this is to build up a body of data that could be used for lobbying purposes, potentially including using such payouts as an alternative (potentially even an economical one) to repression for maintaining political stability.

Edit: to quote Bill Gates, "If we can find approaches that meet the needs of the poor in ways that generate profits for business and votes for politicians, we will have found a sustainable way to reduce inequity in the world."

  • Not exactly what you ask for, but maybe you will be interested in the Housing First initiative for homeless people (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Housing_First).
    – SJuan76
    Jan 29, 2016 at 15:35
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    @user1873 I would say that it is not a duplicate of that question, as I am interested in self-interested political benefits to the donor, not to the receiver. Does that reasoning sound right to you? A rather extreme example, but one which I find quite interesting is: would Syria's President Assad be able to reduce unrest and potentially save on military expenditure by implementing direct transfers in former rebellious areas which he has re-taken? Not that I can immediately think how one might find empirical evidence to support that particular sub-idea.
    – michaeljt
    Jan 30, 2016 at 7:04
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    I don't think this is a duplicate, but I still decided to vote to close this question as too broad. One could write a whole book about this question.
    – Philipp
    Jan 31, 2016 at 13:31
  • @philipp I will re-post the comment I made on Politics meta. I dare say that the intent of the question is clear - to justify why, or better under what circumstances, it would make self-interested political sense for governments (in the broad sense) to implement direct transfer programs. Governments here do not of course have to be elected ones. Any suggestions about how to narrow the scope of the question while still staying true to the intention?
    – michaeljt
    Jan 31, 2016 at 15:17

2 Answers 2


The following are studies of the effects of conditional transfers in Brazil and Mexico, which was so far the most relevant information I have found. Both of these are in the context of popularly elected governments. I intend to edit this answer if/when I find additional material. I would be very grateful too to anyone reviewing what I have found, adding comments or pointing out additional material.

Focus on Brazil's Poor Helps Rousseff's Reelection Chances suggests that recipients of the "Bolza Familia" were significantly more likely to vote for the incumbent government, possibly enough to tip an election.

Can Conditional Cash Transfers Reduce Poverty and Crime? Evidence from Brazil suggests that the Bolza was linked to a "reduction in robbery, theft and kidnapping rates", though is slightly cautious about the link. It says however that "no significant effects were found for homicide and murder".

The Equality Trust Research Digest: Violence: Income Inequality and Violent Crime finds on the other hand that "small reductions in income inequality cause large reductions in homicide", which, if applicable, I would expect to also greatly reduce levels of popular dissatisfaction against the government by making all levels of society feel more secure.

The Effect of Conditional Cash Transfers on Voter Behavior: Evidence from Honduras did not find evidence of benefits of the transfer programme on government electoral success. They do wonder whether this is because the electorate are more interested in which party will expand the programme more in future rather than being grateful for what has already been done.

Rewarding Voters Through Welfare Transfers in Mexico and Brazil does not actually draw conclusions about the effectiveness of using cash transfers to political ends, but rather looks at the process and party strategies.

Political Competition and Local Social Spending: Evidence from Brazil suggests that high levels of social spending significantly reduce the level of political competition. For citizens this is probably not an unmitigated advantage, but it certainly is for a government which would like to stay in power.

Welfare states and social cohesion in Europe: Does social service quality matter? suggests that "An individual who faces high levels of economic strain, perceives there to be on average 8% less social cohesion than someone who experiences no economic strain at all", which suggests that targeting poor areas with a limited basic income might be expected to increase the overall perception of social cohesion in the population.

Thaksin Populism and Beyond: A Study of Thaksin's Pro-Poor Populist Policies in Thailand is a study of policies of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand which I think are close enough to targeted basic income payments to be relevant. The paper focuses critically on how the policies could be better implemented, but also documents the immense political capital they brought Thaksin.

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    Do you really need empirical evidence to ascertain that politicians can buy votes using other people's tax money?
    – Dunk
    Mar 15, 2016 at 22:29
  • I suppose my answer to that would be that if politicians want to do that anyway, there are better or worse ways they can do it, for themselves and everyone else. If they can do it in a way which improves the lot of many people in a cost-effective way, so much the better.
    – michaeljt
    Mar 16, 2016 at 12:00
  • Actually that brings to mind something else worth looking at - Thaksin Shinawatra's period of government in Thailand.
    – michaeljt
    Mar 16, 2016 at 14:27
  • This article - bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35714703 - discusses, among other things, the effect that a Marshall-like plan might have had or have on extremism in the Middle East.
    – michaeljt
    Mar 17, 2016 at 9:55

my motivation for this is to build up a body of data which could be used for lobbying purposes, potentially including using such payouts as an alternative (potentially even an economical one) to repression for maintaining political stability

So what you're essentially asking is: "Do you think people can be bribed not to revolt?"

The obvious answer is "Why yes, yes they can.. until you run out of other people's money to hand out!".

Is there a follow-up question too? Perhaps something like: "Would bribing the masses not to revolt be preferrable to violently subjugating them?", and one way to answer that is: "Yeah, if you absolutely need to rule over people and prevent them from revolting, then I guess bribing them would be preferrable to brutalizing them!"

But another, perhaps more pertinent question arises: Why would you be asking questions like that?

  • Why would I be asking questions like that? In one word: Syria. I hope that even most people who would like Mr Assad gone would agree that this price is too high. So yes, as you put it, I am interested in research on cost-effective ways to bribe people not to revolt. And I think that this one is probably both cost-effective (and easy to control the cost of) and perhaps even self-sustaining, as there is reason to think that the economic benefits are good too. And who knows, it might help lead to less painful political change - improving the lot at the bottom without revolution at the top.
    – michaeljt
    Feb 23, 2016 at 8:36
  • I still have no idea what you're trying to figure out, especially in relation to your position in life. Just saying "Syria" doesn't tell me anything. But overall, bribing people with handouts happens with other people's money, which is actually a limited resource. A government has to rob some people to hand it out to others, so there's no "cost effective" way to bribe the masses anywhere. It's not sustainable and will stop eventually, which the Western world may well in the process of discovering now. The Syrian "refugees" will stop coming if they can't expect to get "free money forever" Feb 23, 2016 at 12:20
  • Sorry, that was obviously not as clear as I thought. I was not talking about Syrian refugees in Europe, but about Syria itself, and wondering whether more support for the poorest in Syria might have boosted the government's popularity enough to have prevented what is happening now. Or for that matter, whether more financial support for people inside of Syria now in areas which have stopped fighting might help to prevent more fighting there. I would be more inclined to talk about "tax money" than about robbing people, though the difference can be a matter of who you ask and/or of situation.
    – michaeljt
    Feb 23, 2016 at 14:18
  • Defining national income as "other people's money" isn't always true. Especially if you get into the complexities of what leads to wealth creation (capitalism being supported by state institutions), rather than a simplistic view of it being individuals earning in a vacuum. Saudi and other energy or mineral rich nations have state industries which could by no means be defined as "other people's money".
    – user8398
    Jul 1, 2016 at 13:32

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