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Christine L. Williams, Chair CLA 3.306, Mailcode A1700, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-232-6300

Rourke O'Brien - "Redistribution and the New Fiscal Sociology: Race and the Progressivity of State and Local Taxes"

Mon, November 11, 2013 • 12:00 PM • CLA 1.302B

Welfare states redistribute wealth through two mechanisms: spending and taxation. Yet research on the determinants of redistribution typically focuses exclusively on social spending. This talk explores how one important determinant of welfare state spending—racial heterogeneity—shapes both individual tax preferences and the structure of tax systems. First, using unique data on tax policy in the United States, I demonstrate that changes in racial composition are associated with changes in the progressivity of state and local tax systems. Second, using evidence from a nationally representative survey experiment, I find that individual preferences for taxation are actively shaped by the changing racial composition of the community. Moreover, I show that in-group preference, or feeling “solidarity” with neighbors, is a key mechanism through which racial threat shapes preferences for taxation. In providing empirical evidence that racial heterogeneity shapes tax systems—which in turn have real implications for aggregate inequality, welfare state generosity, and household well-being—this project serves to bridge the study of inequality and social policy with the burgeoning new fiscal sociology.

Rourke O'Brien is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at Princeton University. His research interests include stratification and inequality, economic sociology, and comparative social policy. His current research projects investigate the determinants of taxation, the role of disability programs in modern welfare states, and the intersection between public assistance and household finance. As of June 2012, he is also a Senior Policy Advisor for the US Department of the Treasury in Washington, DC. He previously served as a Research Fellow and Policy Analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute. He has consulted for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Center for Financial Services Innovation, and the US Financial Diaries Project, a venture of the Financial Access Initiative at NYU.


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