The Electoral Consequences of Household Indebtedness under Austerity

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What are the political consequences of rising household debt in the context of fiscal austerity? I argue that cuts in welfare benefits privatize social obligations as voters address ensuing financial shortfalls by borrowing money. Debt re-commodifies individuals and shifts their electoral support from incumbents to opposition and anti-establishment parties by provoking feelings of political neglect, economic vulnerability, and strong emotional responses. I examine this argument by leveraging spatial and temporal variation in the rollout of Universal Credit (UC), a large-scale welfare reform in the United Kingdom. Using fine-grained administrative data on unsecured debt, I demonstrate that fiscal austerity generated an increase in indebtedness, which lowered support for the incumbent Conservatives and strengthened support for Labour and the UK Independence Party (UKIP). I then use individual-level survey data to explore the mechanisms that link debt and political behavior. The results suggest that rising indebtedness increases the political costs of welfare retrenchment and creates new political cleavages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)354-371
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Journal of Political Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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