The Golden Age of Tax Expenditures: Fiscal Welfare and Inequality in Portugal (1989–2011)

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This paper studies social tax expenditures as an instrument of social policy, considering its broader social and political ramifications, particularly regressive distributive impacts, the targeting of social protection and making markets for non-state providers. Using OECD data and government budgets, we look at ‘tax breaks for social purposes’ in Portugal since the 1980s, with a focus on healthcare, educational and mortgage loan expenses. Portugal presents a comparatively high level of TBSP before the Great Recession. Why? Using Portugal as a theory-developing case, the paper argues that in the critical juncture following the late, double transition to democracy and structural economic reform, tax and welfare state developments combined to create social tax expenditures as a modality of targeted social expenditure favouring middle and higher strata. Once in place, a combination of powerful vested interests, obscure policy-making, regressive income distribution and high take-up rate across taxpaying groups obtained a path-dependent outcome, keeping inegalitarian and costly fiscal welfare growing during adverse fiscal conditions. Such a resilient outcome was curbed only in 2011 by the harsh conditionality of the economic and financial adjustment programme of the Portuguese bailout, an instance of how deep crises provide opportunities for path-shifting reconfigurations of social policy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)780-797
Number of pages18
JournalNew Political Economy
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2019


  • Fiscal welfare
  • Healthcare
  • Portugal
  • Social protection
  • Social tax expenditures


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