Why don’t we want to pay unemployment benefits? Pt.1

Inspired by Ben’s recent batch of posts on the benefits system, I wanted to spend some time talking a bit more about how people on benefits are perceived, and how and why that might have changed over time.

In his detailed discussion of conditionality and deservingness, Ben drew attention to the pretty steep decline in people’s support for unemployment benefits. His graph of data from the British Social Attitudes survey (reproduced below) show that, since the mid-90’s, the proportion of people agreeing that “Unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work” has gone from around 40% to almost 60%. I’m interested in why that should be. What has been going on over the last 15 years or so to result in so dramatic a drop in support for these benefits?

Graph of support for unemployment benefits from British Social Attitudes Survey data

Addressing this question is going to take more than one post; so I’m going to split the discussion in two. In this first post I’m going talk generally about proximate causes; about what’s going on in people’s heads when they think about unemployment benefits. In the second post, I want to talk about bigger, society-level causes. What’s been going on in wider society that might have changed what’s in people’s heads? And what’s more, can anything be done about it?

As for people’s immediate feelings about unemployment benefits, there are a number of ways in which they could have changed. First, there may have been a more general shift to the right in terms of people’s feeling about the role of the state in social support, with perceptions of unemployment benefit forming just a part of this trend. However, this doesn’t jibe with people’s feelings about, for example, pensions for retirees; people’s support for more spending on pensions has actually increased over the same period that support for unemployment benefits has decreased (again from the British Social Attitudes survey). It seems that people don’t mind the government spending more money, as long as it’s on certain specific groups.

Another possible explanation for the fall in support for unemployment benefits is people’s perception of how much money benefit claimants actually get. If the perceived generosity of benefit payments has increased over time, then more and more people will think they are too high. This would be true even if the amount people think benefit claimants should be paid had actually increased too; as long as the perceived generosity of the payments has increased faster. Again this explanation is definitely plausible. In terms of its relationship with people’s wages, the generosity of unemployment benefit has actually fallen over the last 20 years (see pages 20 and 21 in this report). But thanks to a seemingly unending stream of articles like this in the mainstream press, I imagine a lot of people think it’s the other way around.

However, I don’t think this is the real story. I think people’s support for unemployment benefit would have dropped regardless of how generous they think the payments are. I think that most of the same people who now say they are too high would say the same if they knew they were half what they are now or double. That’s because I think the real story of the last 15-plus years is people’s changing perception of the kind of person who claims unemployment benefit. A perception has emerged of ‘benefit claimants’ as a separate class of people; a class that, in general, do not deserve any sort of help whatsoever. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much money people think benefit claimants actually get; any amount would be too much because they are bad people.

The stereotype of the lazy, feckless, undeserving poor is obviously not new, but I don’t think it has ever been applied as broadly or as firmly as it has come to be in recent years. The mental category to which these negative stereotypes are applied now seems to have expanded to cover anyone ‘on benefits’. The very phrase ‘on benefits’, like ‘council estate’, now activates a set of negative associations that it would not have done a few decades ago. An unfortunate property of these associations is that, because they are attached to a ‘kind of person’, they are necessarily freighted with a sense of permanence. You are not a person currently claiming unemployment benefit; you are one of the ‘people on benefits’.

Essentially, what I’m arguing has changed in recent years is that the extent to which ‘people on benefits’ forms a neat, homogenous, mental category has steadily increased, and every member of this category is tarred with the same negative associations. It is these negative associations that are driving the decline in support for unemployment benefits. They have deeply invaded our mental landscapes, and we can no more escape them than we can those we have built up about people of other ethnicities, genders or sexual orientations. Consciously or not, they are activated whenever we are presented with the concept of unemployment benefits (for example when a survey researcher asks us whether we think they are too high) and, inevitably, they colour our thoughts and responses.

(As a side not, I think that people receiving incapacity benefit have been particularly unfortunate victims of the changing perception I’ve described. There seems to be a horrible kind of circularity to people’s thinking about this: Being disabled and incapable of work means you receive incapacity benefits, but receiving these benefits puts you in the mental category of ‘people on benefits’; people on benefits are bad people, therefore you must not really be disabled.)

In my next post I want to talk more about why people’s perceptions of ‘people on benefits’ might have changed, and what, as people interested in inequalities, we could do to reverse it. In the meantime, as this post is based on a lot of speculation on my part, I would be interested to hear what other people think. Particularly whether you agree that people’s minds have really changed a lot in this respect, or whether you maybe think I’m underestimating the extent to which these prejudices have always existed. Let me know.

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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10 Responses to Why don’t we want to pay unemployment benefits? Pt.1

  1. Mark Gamsu says:

    Interesting post Robert – I do wonder whether the decrease in social mobility and in particular the relative poor performance in this regard of countries like the UK and the US – see evidence from the Equality Trust – is another factor that exacerbates the “us and them” characteristics that you touch on above.

  2. This seems like a perfect topic to investigate with controlled psychological experiments. I’d like to see an experiment that tests the homogeneity of people’s “welfare beneficiary” mental construct. How much information — discordant with people’s preconceived notions — would it take to get them to change their attitudes or perceptions toward hypothetical subjects on benefits? Would it be enough to learn about people’s personal stories or struggles in the labor market? Is there any good research of this kind?

  3. Robert de Vries says:

    Mark: I definitely think that increasing inequality and declining social mobility have got a big part to play but I’ll be getting into that a bit more in the part 2.

    Brendan: I agree that would be a great thing to do. There aren’t any studies that I’m aware of, but I would really like to see some data from implicit association tests – to try and get a more specific handle on the content of the stereotype people have about people on benefits. Maybe, like you say, whether it’s alterable depending on what extra information people have.

  4. Iain Snowden says:

    So what are the unions going to do about this? Many workers agree with the penalising of unemployed people – the proaganda is working – and the unions have just stood by and watched. Of course union leaders are happy to pick up their large pay packets and talk a lot. Meanwhile people are dying, being abused, being discriminated against, having to move home/ go homeless etc etc. TALK IS CHEAP as cheap as workfare

  5. Pingback: Why don’t we want to pay unemployment benefits? Pt.2 | Inequalities

  6. Pingback: Healing the economy by making it more equal | Inequalities

  7. Pingback: What we lose when we don’t talk about class | Inequalities

  8. Thurman Baenziger says:

    Unemployment rates these days are so high. we really need some economic bailout. –

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  9. Pingback: Inequality and civic morality | Inequalities

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