Ulric B. and Evelyn L. Bray Social Sciences Seminar
Abstract: Theories of distributive politics often focus on electoral targeting. I argue that simple eligibility criteria and path dependence may play an important and largely understudied role in shaping the distribution of urban funding. I study the case of New York City discretionary expenditures by council members. After geocoding the addresses of over 70,000 grant recipient organizations between 2014 and 2022, I use voter file data and precinct-level election returns to construct granular demographic and political profiles of over 5,000 neighborhoods across each city council district. I find no evidence that voter turnout or incumbent vote share shape the distribution of funds, but I do find that discretionary grants accrue disproportionately to wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. However, this pattern can largely be explained by the fact that the nonprofits eligible to receive the discretionary funding tend to be located in these neighborhoods. These findings illustrate the difficulty in designing equitable transfer systems even in the absence of electoral considerations. Instead, the combination of existing spatial inequality and path dependence can constrain the ability of elected officials to target needy areas.