Sharp softening of attitudes to benefit claimants, reveals new data

Over the past twenty-five years, there has been a major and widely-reported change in British attitudes towards benefit claimants: simply put, we are less positive about benefit claimants than we used to be. More of us think that ‘large numbers falsely claim’ or that ‘many claimants don’t deserve help’, and attitudes have become particularly hostile to unemployment benefit claimants, as has been repeatedly catalogued in the annals of NatCen’s British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey.

But suddenly, there is a sign that this might be changing. In the 2016 survey, published today, there was a sharp decrease in how much benefit manipulation – questionable activities, which may not technically count as fraud – people thought was going on.

  • Only 22% of people agreed that most dole claimants are ‘fiddling’ – down from 29% in 2015, and 35% in 2014. Indeed, this is the lowest level ever recorded in thirty years of asking this question in BSA.
  • Similarly, numbers agreeing that ‘most claimants don’t deserve help’ dropped from 32% in 2014 to 21% in 2016, again to the lowest level on record in BSA since the question was first asked in 1987.
  • But this was not matched by changes in the proportions saying that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one, suggesting the softening towards claimants is not because of any perceived change in the labour market.

Views on the prevalence of benefit ‘manipulation’, 1987-2016

Trends as described in text
Underlying data given in the appendix our chapter in this year’s BSA report.

The double standard in thinking about tax vs. benefits fraud was the focus of our BSA chapter, as Aaron Reeves has written about here. But in additional analyses for this blog post, we see that the change in wider attitudes to benefits is less marked. There is little systematic change in people’s desire to spend more on welfare benefits for the poor (35% want this in 2016, similar to the 34-36% in 2013-14), even if there has been a rise in the numbers saying that we should increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits (rising 37% to 48% 2014-2016, and now at its highest level since 2004). So there seems to be a specific change in how people think about benefit claimants, rather than a general shift in attitudes towards the benefits system.

While the latest data relate to Jul-Oct 2016, the first question that comes to mind after the 2017 election is: is this a Corbyn effect? The short answer seems to be ‘no’. Indeed, if anything, the changes in attitudes have been slightly greater among Conservatives than Labour supporters, and among older people than younger people, although the attitudes of all groups seem to have changed, as shown below:

Trends similar among those of different ages / political affiliations

A final word of caution

Two final words of caution are needed here. Firstly, we will need to examine the results of the 2017 survey (which is about to go into field) to see if these changes are sustained – the smaller drops in 2006 now look like a one-year aberration, as does the softening of attitudes in 2013. But if so, this may indicate an important change in the way the public thinks about benefit claimants.

While waiting to see if the trend is confirmed, we should remember that even without a major shift, attitudes are not as negative as they are often portrayed to be. And looking at times and places where more generous benefit systems are popular, it is clear that people are fundamentally ambivalent about benefits system, and what varies is the balance between the positive and negative aspects of this ambivalence, as I argue

This post was also simultaneously published by the NatCen blog.

Posted in Blog posts | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The perception of inequality of opportunity – and the reality

In a guest post, Paolo Brunori – an Assistant Professor at the University of Bari, and blogger at Lavoce – summarises his new paper on the perception of inequality of opportunity in Europe, recently published in the Review of Income and Wealth.

When thousands of Egyptians gathered to protest in Tahrir Square in January 2011, many commentators listed rising inequality as one of the main explanations of the unprecedented wave of protests. However, in a recent publication, Paolo Verme (World Bank) has shown that  in the years before the beginning of the Arab Spring perceived inequality was increasing in Egypt, but actual inequality – as measured by economists – if anything was falling. What does explain this misperception? What does determine how we perceive inequalities? Continue reading

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The return of the Inequalities blog

After being dormant for most of the last two years, the Inequalities blog is starting up again!

It won’t return to its heyday of weekly posts from the US and UK (at least, not yet), but I will be starting to blog periodically about the same issues as always (now with a slightly different name), and we’ll be open to occasional guest posts as well – starting with a post to go up later today from Paolo Brunori.

It’s good to be rejoining the debate 🙂


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Are there neighbourhoods where benefit claims aren’t stigmatised?

According to one commentator in The Times, an underclass of benefit claimants is “now contaminating the life of entire neighbourhoods—which is one of the most insidious aspects of the phenomenon, for neighbours who don’t share those values cannot isolate themselves”. No, this isn’t a contemporary columnist repeating some of the more debatable claims of the programme Benefits Street, ‘where 90 per cent of the residents are on benefits’. Instead, it’s the American commentator Charles Murray on a visit to the UK back in the 1990s. Benefits Street may be a new type of programme, but it taps into an older idea.

Despite this, we have no idea whether high-benefit claim neighbourhoods genuinely do stigmatise benefits less than low-claim neighbourhoods. In a new paper in the Journal of Social Policy (or here), , I try to fill this gap by presenting the results of a specially-commissioned nationally representative survey, which merged-in information about people’s local areas alongside their responses about benefits stigma itself. Continue reading

Posted in Blog posts | 2 Comments

Just how common is benefits stigma in Britain?

To (loosely) coincide with my paper on benefits stigma coming out in the Journal of Social Policy, I’ve written a short summary on the LSE Politics and Policy blog. (Long-running readers of the blog will see that this is a developed version of the earlier report that I did with Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney in 2012 – you get bonus points for spotting how the analysis has changed between versions…).  I’ve also written a further blog post here on Inequalities, called ‘Are there neighbourhoods where benefit claims aren’t stigmatised?’ 

It’s been a while since I’ve been regularly posting on the blog, but I’ll also be posting in the coming months on some other work I’ve been doing on benefit myths – so watch this space.

Posted in Blog posts | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Myths about out-of-work benefit claims?

There’s been a lot of talk about ‘benefit myths’ over the last few years – the things that people believe about the benefits system that aren’t actually true. I’ve almost finished a paper on this – watch this space! – but in the meantime I wanted to write about one new finding in the paper: the public’s beliefs about out-of-work benefit claims in general. And it doesn’t show exactly what you might expect.

Continue reading

Posted in Blog posts | 5 Comments

Trends in out-of-work benefit claimants in Britain

As long-term readers will know, I’m intrigued by people’s beliefs about the benefit system, and their truthfulness or falsity of these beliefs. Later in the summer, I’ll talk about a new aspect of this: people’s perceptions of how many out-of-work benefit claimants exist, and whether they think this has risen or fallen. In preparing for this, though, we need to look at actually how many out-of-work benefit claimants there are – which is what I describe in this short (and unusually commentary-free) post.

Continue reading

Posted in Blog posts | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

The strong but declining support for pensioner benefits

I’ve just written a piece on the LSE British Politics & Policy blog with Peter Taylor-Gooby for the launch of the latest, ever-interesting British Social Attitudes report. Comment at LSE BPP if you want to discuss it!

Posted in Blog posts | Leave a comment

Global inequality is declining – maybe

I don’t have enough time to write a full post on this, but anyone who’s interested in this blog (and my previous post on this) will surely be interested in Branko Milanovic’s new estimates of global inequality, which suggest a decline from 2008 to 2011. However, the data isn’t perfect – when is it? – and Milanovic is open about the caveats, of which the hidden wealth of the super-rich seems particularly important.  You can read the full post here.

Oh, and happy new year too!

Posted in Blog posts | Tagged | 2 Comments

Benefits, food banks, and denial

Parry et al 2014 coverA blazing row erupted earlier this week with the publication of a charity research report on food banks – the latest in a series of blazing rows on food bank use in the UK.  At stake was the claim that food bank use is related to issues with the benefits system, a claim that has been made repeatedly but which has been steadfastly rejected by the Government.  The charity Sense about Science got in touch with me to ask about the charity report, and after sending them a briefing that underpinned their own blog post, I decided to write a fuller explanation here. Continue reading

Posted in Articles | Tagged | 3 Comments