Obama’s Stimulus: A Bit of Pork, a Lot of Opportunism

A study [$] published in the winter edition of Political Science Quarterly considers two possible reasons for why the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) failed to sprinkle Uncle Sam’s magic dust onto those areas of the country that were being hardest hit by the recession. 

Was it because well-positioned politicians were successful in delivering the pork? 

Or was it because the recession created a “window of opportunity” for politicians to quickly spend a bunch of additional money on pet causes, which had the effect of benefitting certain areas of the country? 

I’m going to skip right to the answer: the uneven geographic distribution of stimulus funds had only a little to do with traditional pork barreling and much to do with Obama’s then chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s famous quip that “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” 

On the possibility of traditional pork-barreling, the authors found no statistically significant relationship between the distribution of funds and whether a county was represented by a politician serving on a congressional committee relevant to stimulus funding. Nor was a relationship found between funding and counties that were represented by a Democrat in the House or Senate. However, a relationship was found between funding and those counties that overwhelmingly voted for the president: 

There does, however, appear to be a distinct tilt toward counties that were stronger for the Democratic Party in 2008. All else equal, counties at the 90th percentile of Democratic share presidential vote ’08 received between $35 and $36 more per capita in both total funding and infrastructure projects than did counties at the 10th percentile (p ≤ .001)…The effect of presidential politics may be especially relevant for the distribution of ARRA funds because most of the grants, loans, and contracts funded by the stimulus were in discretionary programs overseen by administrative agencies, over which presidents and their political appointees exercise influence. 

On the other hand, the authors found that a county possessing attributes that synched with the policies funded in ARRA were more likely to receive money. For example, a county with a lot of interstate highway mileage made out better than a county that did not. Another example is counties that had a larger share of state and local government workers received a larger share of funds. 

While it’s not surprising that legislation that funds highway infrastructure projects would benefit areas with more highway mileage, let’s remember that the stimulus was sold by many politicians as being necessary to help those with the greatest need. Indeed, as the authors point out, the text of the legislation stated that a main goal was “to assist those most impacted by the recession.” 

The bottom line is that the Obama administration used the economic downturn to spend a bunch of money it otherwise would not have been able to on a stack of its pet policies. In the process, the counties that did the most to put Obama in the White House received a taxpayer-funded thank you in return.