Attacking the poor in the UK

In a guest post, Daniel Sage asks how the UK Coalition have found it so easy to cut benefits for the poor.

Tory election poster

When the UK Chancellor brands benefit cheats as “muggers” and Arts Minister Jeremy Hunt asserts that the State should not support large, poor families, it is clear that the Coalition Government feels strongly about benefits and fairness.  The Government is effectively saying that there is a way to deal with the deficit fairly: save and protect the services people deserve – the NHS, schools and old-age benefits – by cutting the support which the so-called undeserving ‘workshy’ rely on.  The dichotomy between the deserving and undeserving is an old one, yet one which Coalition politicians are finding useful when looking where to cut.

One question we must ask is how this quite open attack on benefit claimants is being so freely pursued. Policy reforms which will genuinely hurt claimants – for example, the shift in the index used to uprate benefits each year, a cap on benefit claims and cuts to housing and council tax benefits – are not just not being scrutinised; they are seemingly being celebrated.  Compare this to the furore over the removal of Child Benefit from higher-rate taxpayers and the deserving and undeserving debate becomes clear.

To understand this, data on social attitudes can help shed light on the genesis of Coalition policy.  A brief analysis of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) series of surveys shows that support for what critics may see as ‘undeserving’ benefits – particularly those received by the workless – has always stood at a somewhat lower level than other benefits and services.  In 1986, Nick Bosanquet, writing in that year’s BSA report, stated that the “collectivist majority is much smaller on unemployment benefits than in other aspects of social welfare”.  Yet there was still what appeared to be a wide degree of social solidarity; in 1995, Peter Taylor-Gooby in the 12th BSA report declared that social attitudes “do not sit easily with the notion of the job shy”.

In 2010, at the end of the New Labour era, such solidarity appears to have profoundly cracked and withered away.  For example, as the Figure below shows, there has been an astounding shift against the belief that unemployment benefits are “too low”.  When Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party, 55.1% agreed that benefits were too low; by the time he was due to leave this proportion was just 22.7%.  Certainly, we can say that this is not due to the introduction of more generous benefits for the unemployed.

Trends in attitudes towards unemployment benefits

In addition, the BSA data shows an increasing public belief that the unemployed have strong personal responsibility and, perhaps, moral culpability for their situation.  There has been an overwhelming increase of over 30 per cent of those who believe that unemployed people could find a job “if they really wanted one” with a smaller, but still large, increase in those who agree that large numbers of people falsely claim benefits.  More broadly, between 1986 and 2006, there was a 10% increase in the belief that people live in need because of “laziness” and “lack of will power”.

Some might argue that attitudes about benefit claimants are extremely sensitive to the economic cycle.  In the cases above, for example, the quite evident hardening of attitudes towards the unemployed could be related to the long economic boom.  Yet the widespread and deep change in how people explain worklessness – i.e. with a stronger emphasis on personal culpability – suggests a shift in attitudes beyond what can be explained by economic growth alone.  Indeed, a softening of attitudes towards benefit claimants during the recent economic downturn has failed to transpire.

For this, we might hypothesise that some of New Labour’s core policy messages – such as “rights and responsibilities” and “work for those who can” – acted to strongly alter public perceptions towards working-age benefit claimants. As Tom Sefton from the LSE states:

“consciously or not, the way government talks about social problems and presents its policies can over time shape the way people think”

Ultimately, the shift in social attitudes which occurred during the New Labour era could end up being devastating for benefit recipients.  For while Labour was in power, such groups – despite the attitudinal shift against them – remained broadly protected by political will.  Now, any such will to act on their behalf by the Coalition looks to be non-existent.  For the new Government, it is easy work to take with both hands; after all, their Labour predecessors only gave with one, increasing public spending but weakening public support for the wider welfare state.

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4 Responses to Attacking the poor in the UK

  1. Pingback: Highlights so far… | Inequalities

  2. Pingback: Punishing the sick | Inequalities

  3. Pingback: Conditionality and the deservingness of benefit claimants | Inequalities

  4. Pingback: Attitudes to tax-dodging in Britain | Inequalities

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