Sara Niedzwiecki, Ph.D.

University of California, Santa Cruz

City: Santa Cruz, California, California

Country: United States

About Me:

Sara Niedzwiecki is Assistant Professor of Politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her PhD in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research is on the process through which social policies are formed and implemented as well as on the territorial structure of government in Latin America. Niedzwiecki’s book, Uneven Social Policies: The Politics of Subnational Variation in Latin America (2018, Cambridge University Press) explores the political factors that shape the implementation of social policies in decentralized countries. A second, co-authored book, Measuring Regional Authority: A Postfunctionalist Theory of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2016), presents the Regional Authority Index for 80 OECD+, Asian, and Latin American countries from 1950 to 2010. Niedzwiecki’s work has been published in Comparative Political Studies, Electoral Studies, Latin American Politics and Society, Studies in Comparative International Development, Journal of Politics in Latin America, Regional and Federal Studies, PS: Political Science and Politics, International Political Science Review, Saúde Coletiva (Brazil), and Revista de Ciencia Política (Chile). During 2020-2021 academic year, Professor Niedzwiecki is a fellow at University of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies where she is working on a new project on social policy and immigration in Latin America.

Research Interests

Latin American And Caribbean Politics

Social Policies

Conditional Cash Transfers

Health Policies

Welfare State

Federalism, Regionalism, Decentralization

Countries of Interest





Journal Articles:

(2020) Language Difference and Regional Authority, Regional & Federal Studies

Shair-Rosenfield, Sarah, Arjan H. Schakel, Sara Niedzwiecki, Gary Marks, Liesbet Hooghe, and Sandra Chapman-Osterkatz. “Language Difference and Regional Authority.” Regional & Federal Studies, 2020. This paper draws on research in geography, linguistics, and political science to explain the incidence of language regions and their effect on regional authority. It conjectures a chain of mechanisms beginning with the physical and political barriers to human interaction and culminating with contemporary patterns of regional authority. Using data on 1767 regions in 95 countries, it finds causal power in the claim that the linguistic distinctiveness of a region reflects the ratio of internal interaction to external interaction. Finally, the effects of a language region for regional authority depend decisively on the openness of the political regime.

(2019) Participatory Social Policies: Diverging Patterns in Brazil and Bolivia, Latin American Politics and Society

Bolivia and Brazil have universalized their pension and healthcare systems, respectively. Civil society organizations participated actively in social policy expansion, yet they have done so in starkly different ways, reflecting general patterns in each country. Whereas in Brazil, popular participation in social policies takes place through “inside” formal channels, such as conferences and councils, in Bolivia, bottom-up influence occurs mostly via “outside” channels, by coordinating collective action in the streets. Understanding forms of popular participation matters because policies that allow for popular input are potentially more representative, universal, and nondiscretionary. This article argues that differences in the forms of popular participation in social policy expansion can be explained by the characteristics of the institutional context and differences in the types of movements engaged in the policymaking process. By focusing on patterns of participation, these findings add nuance to the literature on Latin America’s welfare states.

(2018) The RAI travels to Latin America: Measuring regional authority under regime change., Regional and Federal Studies

This paper presents a new dataset on regional authority in 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries for 1950–2010 based on the Regional Authority Index (RAI), which makes it possible to compare regional authority over time and across regions. We explain conceptualization, operationalization, and coding decisions with the aim of making judgments explicit, and therefore open to amendment or refutation. We present substantive observations about the variation across countries and over time and discuss the implications and challenges of expanding the RAI to contexts in which democracy and authoritarianism alternate.

(2018) Decentralization and democratic participation: The effect of subnational self-rule on voting in Latin America and the Caribbean, Electoral Studies

Previous literature on the consequences of decentralization has demonstrated a positive effect on voter participation in subnational elections. However, does this positive effect also extend to national level elections? This paper evaluates the consequences of decentralization-level political participation. Our approach innovates by disaggregating decentralization to uncover the specific dimensions that matter for voting participation. We argue that self-rule (or the authority that subnational units exercise in their own territory) is closely associated with vertical accountability and positively affects voting participation. Moreover, we find that political dimensions of self-rule matter more than fiscal dimensions. Shared-rule (or the authority that subnational units exercise in the country as a whole) has no significant effect on participation since it is more closely related to horizontal accountability. We test our theory in 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries using a hierarchical model with 2010 data at the national and individual-level.

(2017) Social Policies and Center-Right Governments in Argentina and Chile, Latin American Politics and Society

Latin America's “left turn” expanded cash transfers and public services, contributing to lower poverty and inequality. Recently, right-leaning candidates and parties have begun to win back seats in the legislature, and in some cases have captured the executive branch. This shift has sparked debate about the future of Latin America's welfare states. This article analyzes social policy reforms enacted by two recent right-leaning governments: that of Sebastián Piñera in Chile (2010–14) and Mauricio Macri in Argentina (2015–). It finds that contrary to neoliberal adjustment policies of the past, neither Macri nor Piñera engaged in privatization or deep spending cuts. Instead, both administrations facilitated a process of policy drift in some sectors and marginal expansion in others. Policy legacies and the strength of the opposition help to explain these outcomes, suggesting that Latin America's political context has been transformed by the consolidation of democracy and the experience of left party rule.

(2017) Mixed-Methods Research in the Study of Welfare States, PS Political Science and Politics

Incorporating multiple methodologies in a single research design has the potential to significantly advance knowledge. The combination of “qualitative” and “quantitative” methods in political science has become more diverse, including case studies, statistical analysis, formal models, QCA, and experiments. This paper investigates specific ways in which scholars of welfare states combined research methodologies. It found that few published works incorporate mixed methods and argue that this is a missed opportunity by analyzing the specific ways in which combining multiple methods can advance our understanding of welfare states. In doing so, this article contributes to the discussion of the actual use of mixed methods in the social sciences and the specific contributions that this can produce for the advancement of theory. It begins with a meta-analysis of scholarship that cites Gøsta Esping-Andersen’s seminal book The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, and finds few published works that incorporate multiple methods in their research design. The paper then selects prominent examples of the most common combinations (statistical analysis and case studies, formal models and statistical analysis, QCA and statistical analysis) illustrating how mixed-methods research enhances theory development, aids in theory testing, and expands upon existing knowledge of welfare states.

(2016) Social Policies, Attribution of Responsibility, and Political Alignments. A Subnational Analysis of Argentina and Brazi, Comparative Political Studies

This paper assesses how the political context shapes policy implementation in decentralized countries. It finds that effective implementation of non-contributory social policies depends on political alignments across different territorial levels. Subnational units governed by the opposition hinder the implementation of national policies, but only if the policy carries clear attribution of responsibility. On one hand, conditional cash transfers have clear attribution of responsibility and thus pose risks for opposition subnational governments, who as a result have incentives to obstruct such policies. On the other hand, in social services attribution of responsibility is blurred and therefore their implementation is not shaped by political alignments. By analyzing policy implementation, disaggregating social policies, and incorporating multilevel political alignments, this paper contributes to theories of the welfare state and multilevel governance. The empirical foundation includes an analysis of the factors that shape the successful implementation of social policies in Argentina and Brazil through a combination of pooled time series analysis and extensive field research.

(2016) Social Movements and Social Policy: the Bolivian Renta Dignidad, Studies in Comparative International Development

The impact of popular mobilization and social movements against the advance of neoliberal policies has been well documented and theorized. Their concrete impact on the process of social policy reform in the post-neoliberal era is still under debate, however. This article theorizes about the conditions linking disparate new movements to each other and to old, class-based social movements in the defense of a concrete policy reform, Bolivia’s non-contributory pension, the Renta Dignidad. Using a case study research design built on content analysis of newspaper coverage, we identify the necessary, though not sufficient, conditions facilitating alignment of interests and coordinated mobilization—a context of adversity (as confronting a highly mobilized opposition) and the universalistic characteristics of the policy. Under those conditions, social movements allied with Bolivia’s governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) were critical in the passage of Renta Dignidad by counterbalancing the pressure from a highly mobilized opposition backed by strong economic elites.

(2015) Social Policy Commitment in South America. The Effect of Organized Labor on Social Spending from 1980 to 2010, Journal of Politics in Latin America

This paper studies the effect of organized labor on social policy commitment in Latin America. Contrary to the idea that unions are not expected to be major promoters of social state development due to being weakened by dictatorship and structural adjustment, I argue for the incorporation of this variable in statistical analysis of social spending. Through pooled time-series regressions of 10 South American countries from 1980 to 2010, this paper finds that union strength has a statistically significant and positive effect on social spending. This analysis also confirms that democracy and the concentration of power in the executive all have a significant effect with regard to predicting changes in the levels of social spending.

(2014) Trust in government institutions: The effects of performance and participation in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, International Political Science Review

This article analyzes theories of institutional trust in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two developing countries that have shared some historical legacies but currently manifest divergent economic and political trajectories. The evidence confirms that conventional theories emphasizing participation and government performance help us understand institutional trust in both countries. In addition, the analysis emphasizes the analytical leverage gained by exploring the extent to which different facets of engagement have divergent effects on institutional trust. The findings build upon previous research to underscore the importance of considering how context shapes the precise ways in which performance and engagement influence institutional trust, particularly when analyzing the developing world.

(2014) The Effect of Unions and Organized Civil Society on Social Policy: Pension and Health Reforms in Argentina and Brazil, 1988–2008, Latin American Politics and Society

This article shows how modified European power resources theories can be applied to Latin America to explain differences in the depth of policy reforms. It innovates on previous work on Latin American social policy by particularly examining the effect of unions and other civil society groups on the process of structural reforms (or lack thereof) in the health and pension sectors in Argentina and Brazil. Through a most similar system design, this analysis shows that the strength and support (or opposition) of organized civil society groups is a crucial condition to account for the enactment (or failure) of a given broad policy reform.

Books Written:

(2018) Uneven Social Policies: The Politics of Subnational Variation in Latin America, Cambridge University Press

Social policies can transform lives, yet inequitable implementation often limits access for the poor and marginalized. Uneven Social Policies: The Politics of Subnational Variation in Latin America shifts the focus of welfare state analysis away from policy design and toward policy implementation. By examining variation in political alignments, state capacity, and policy legacies, it explains why some policies are implemented more effectively than others, why some deliver votes to incumbent governments while others do not, and why regionally elected executives block the implementation of some but not all national policies. Niedzwiecki explores this variation across provinces and municipalities by combining case studies with statistical analysis of conditional cash transfers and health policies in two large decentralized countries, Argentina and Brazil. The analysis draws on original data gathered during fifteen months of field research that included more than 230 interviews with politicians and 140 with policy recipients.

(2016) Measuring Regional Authority: A Postfunctionalist Theory of Governance,Vol.I, Oxford University Press

Increasing interest in the causes and consequences of decentralization and subnational politics has produced diverse and sophisticated theories in Political Science. This theorizing has met with conceptually inadequate measures that mostly include budgetary figures and that have limited time and spatial coverage. Measuring Regional Authority brings measures of the structure of government more in line with the way political scientists have conceived it. This book sets out a measure of regional authority, the Regional Authority Index (RAI), for 81 countries in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific from 1950 to 2010. It detects more than 1300 changes in sixty-two countries and amounts to 1.7 million region/year observations. Subnational authority is exercised by individual regions, and this measure is the first that takes individual regions as the unit of analysis. On the premise that transparency is a fundamental virtue in measurement, the authors chart a new path in laying out their theoretical, conceptual, and scoring decisions before the reader. To that end, the book incorporates profiles for each of the 81 countries, which detail coding decisions in the dataset. Their purpose is to make the authors’ judgments explicit, and therefore open to amendment or refutation.

Book Chapters:

(2015) Emerging Welfare States in Latin America and East Asia, The Oxford Handbook of Transformations of the State

Building an effective welfare state requires the presence of an effective state. This chapter focuses on the countries with comparatively effective states and the most advanced welfare states in the Global South: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Uruguay, South Korea, and Taiwan. These countries followed different paths to welfare state development, linked to democratization or to co-optation of labor under authoritarian auspices, and the East Asian countries followed these paths significantly later than the Latin American countries. During democratic periods, political parties and advocacy groups were the key actors promoting the different options. At each step, policy legacies from previous periods shaped the range of policy options considered. The recent turn to basic universalism in Latin America is linked the increase in the strength of left parties and their control of government. The delay of welfare state expansion in East Asia is related to the weakness of left parties there.