Redistributive change is a legal theory of economic justice in the context of U.S. law that promotes the recognition of poverty as a classification, like race, ethnicity, gender, and religion, that should likewise draw extra scrutiny from the courts in matters pertaining to civil rights.
The theory was discussed in academia in the wake of Goldberg v. Kelly, a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court case, which decided that due process, such as a notice and a fair hearing, were required when dealing with the deprivation of a government benefit (such as a medical license) or an entitlement (such as welfare payments). However, attempts to promote redistributive change through the courts gained no traction, and the result of Goldberg v. Kelly was thus limited in scope.
One of the goals, in light of Brown v. Board of Education, was to promote equality in school funding, but this was specifically rejected by the Supreme Court in San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez (1973) which ruled there was no inherent right to education in the United States.
A discussion among two law professors and Illinois State Senator and law lecturer Barack Obama on the topic of civil rights aired on Chicago Public Radio's Odyssey program in 2001. Obama declared in the discussion that redistributive change needs to come through legislation, not the courts, and lamented that the civil rights movement failed to pursue political means to bring such a change about. As a result of Obama's candidacy in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the matter became a campaign issue during the final week of the election, fueling a charge made by his opponent, U.S. Senator John McCain, that Obama was a closet socialist.
- Bazelon, Emily (2008-10-28). "He's Not Robin Hood: What Obama really meant by "redistributive change."". Slate.
- Helfrich, Gretchen; Susan Bandes; Dennis Hutchinson; Barack Obama (2001-01-18). "The Court and Civil Rights". Chicago Public Radio. Archived from the original on 2004-02-24.
A classic example would be something like public education, where after Brown v. Board, a major issue ends up being redistribution -- how do we get more money into the schools, and how do we actually create equal schools and equal educational opportunity? Well, the court in a case called San Antonio v. Rodriguez in the early '70s basically slaps those kinds of claims down, and says, 'You know what, we as a court have no power to examine issues of redistribution and wealth inequalities. With respect to schools, that's not a race issue, that's a wealth issue and something we can't get into.'
- Cooper, Michael; Jack Healy (2008-10-28). "Candidates Battle for Pennsylvania". The New York Times.
- Walsh, Joan (2008-10-28). "What Obama really said in 2001". Salon.
- Rhee, Foon (2007-10-27). "McCain slams Obama on 'redistribution of wealth'". The Boston Globe.
- Eilperin, Juliet; Alice Crites (2008-10-28). "Palin Takes Issue, Liberally, With '01 Obama Remarks". Washington Post.
- Feldmann, Linda (2008-10-30). "McCain makes his closing arguments: Behind in the polls and in key swing states, he throws everything he can at Obama". Christian Science Monitor.