Purpose - The purpose of this study is to examine the cyclical pattern of social expenditure during 1980-2012 for a set of Asian countries. The extant literature available so far has captured the cyclicality of fiscal policy only for member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and for Latin American countries. Moreover, previous studies have largely ignored Asian countries. Design/methodology/approach - The analysis used panel data from global macro-databases of the International Monetary Fund, Statistics of public expenditure for economic development and Asian Development Bank. The cyclical components of social spending (health, education, and social protection) and GDP were determined by using the Hodrick-Prescott Filter. A positive (negative) correlation indicates procyclical (countercyclical) fiscal policy. In line with the existing literature on fiscal cyclicality (Gavin and Perotti, 1997; Lane, 2003; Frankel et al., 2013) that has examined the behavior of fiscal policy over the business cycle, regression analysis is used to examine the impact of political and institutional factors on the behavior of social spending. Findings - It was found that government social expenditure is procyclical across Asian countries during 1980-2012. However, during the past decade, emerging Asian countries have been able to shift from procyclical to countercyclical social spending. This shows that they had taken several initiatives to boost expenditure in the social sector - be it in social protection, health, or education services. The significant determinant of social cyclicality is the quality of institutions, which could help the government to increase fiscal deficit during recessions and repay the debt during economic booms. However, to some extent, their countercyclical action is restrained by the high accumulated level of public debt. Originality/value - In the context of the Asian region, it is important to understand the cyclical pattern of social policy for several reasons. It has been said that crises offer an opportunity for countries to rethink their social policy to achieve more sustained and equitable development. By studying the social spending behavior, the authors can see whether Asian countries were able to grab the opportunity for reshaping their social and economic agenda after the Asian financial crisis. © 2017 Emerald Publishing Limited.