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Democracy's No Panacea for Poverty, Study Finds
Ross assessed democracy's impact. (Photo by Reed Hutchinson)

Democracy's No Panacea for Poverty, Study Finds

Michael Ross, a UCLA political scientist, concluded that democratic countries do no better than their non-democratic counterparts in helping the world's poorest citizens -- a troubling finding, he said, that contradicts the claims made by a generation of scholars.

My analysis suggests that what's happening is that this additional money spent by democracies tends to ultimately go to the middle and upper classes.

This article was first published in UCLA Today.

By Judy Lin

IS DEMOCRACY good for the poor?

Of course, says popular wisdom. This presumption is played out in American foreign policy and bolstered by political scientists, who point to voting rights, freedom of speech and other benefits enjoyed by citizens in democratic countries.

Unfortunately, when put to the test, democracy proves to offer no such panacea for poverty, according to Michael Ross, associate professor of political science.

In a study published in the American Journal of Political Science, Ross concluded that democratic countries do no better than their non-democratic counterparts in helping the world's poorest citizens — a troubling finding, he said, that contradicts the claims made by a generation of scholars.

"Given that political scientists see [their support of democracy] as their key contribution to understanding the relief of global poverty, the most pressing problem in the world, I thought it was important to find out if what they say is really true," Ross said. "And I don't think it is."

Chair of UCLA's International Development Studies Program, Ross analyzed infant and child mortality rates for 169 countries over a 30-year span between 1970 and 2000 and discovered no difference between democratic and non-democratic countries. Mortality rates, he noted, are rooted in the poorest of the poor in countries around the world and also provide a sensitive measure of many other conditions among the very poor, from access to clean water and sanitation to prenatal and neonatal health-care services. Ross' study expands upon earlier research by other political scientists that did not take into account data from several key countries.

Earlier cross-national studies, Ross noted, tended to overlook non-democratic states with good economic and social records. For example, authoritarian states such as Saudi Arabia and Libya, which have higher incomes and more successful poverty-alleviation programs, were often absent.

"I decided to go back to the data and try to do a more rigorous analysis," he said.

Once these data were added and other methodological flaws were corrected, Ross found that democracy has little or no effect on child mortality rates.

Key to understanding this outcome, the political scientist said, is the notion that while democracies often spend more money on public services such as health and education, these services don't seem to be reaching the people who need it most.

"My analysis suggests that what's happening is that this additional money spent by democracies tends to ultimately go to the middle and upper classes," Ross said. "It looks on paper like it's going to help the poor, but it actually is captured by people who are pretty well off."

For example, in India, a democracy, World Bank data showed that the richest 20% of the population was six times more likely than the poorest 20% to take their children to public hospitals for treatment of diarrhea, a condition that can be easily treated but can be life-threatening if untreated.

Evidence of this phenomenon occurs closer to home, too, Ross noted. "There are people here in South Central and East L.A. whose vote counts just as much as the votes of the wealthy, but they're not getting the services they need."

His conclusion?

"Democracy unquestionably produces noneconomic benefits for people in poverty, endowing them with political rights and liberties," Ross said. "But the bottom line is that democracies don't function nearly as well as we political scientists think they do.

"We need to think much harder about the ways that we can contribute to the alleviation of poverty in the world," he said.

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