It’s rare for journalists to be waiting for social research with baited breath, pens poised and column inches left blank in anticipation. But the annual release of the ‘British Social Attitudes’ series does just that, a testament to just how interested we are in what we think about one another (and to cheap journalism…). The publication of this year’s figures the other week was no exception, prompting headlines about ‘hardening’ public attitudes in Britain to those on benefits.
But the widely reported death of solidarity with people on benefits is not as it seems. After the adrenaline rush of the new figures has ebbed, I here go back over the figures (and a few other recent studies) to look at what people think, what has changed, and what this means for the politics of the benefits system.
All is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds
We need to start by looking at what prompted headlines such as the BBC’s, “UK attitudes on…welfare ‘toughening’”. There are four sets of findings here: about spending more/less, about government’s responsibility to support people, about whether claimants are deserving, and about the negative consequences of the benefits system – I’ll come back to the last of these in a post next week.
On spending, there has been a sharp decline in the number of people saying that we should raise taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits (from 62% in 1997 to 36% in 2011). This has been matched by falls in the proportion saying we should spend more on ‘welfare benefits for the poor’ (43% in 2003, 28% today), and when looking in particular at disabled people, carers, those working on low incomes, single parents, and retired people. This led the NatCen chief executive (quoted in the BBC story) to say:
“One thing that we’ve seen is that even where groups are seen as perhaps more deserving – so retired people, disabled people – again for the first time since 2008 we’ve seen that the number of people who are prepared to see more money go on disability benefits has actually fallen.”
This was perhaps the lead finding, but two other sets of findings were used to back up the general tenor of the stories. There has been a decline in people’s belief that the government has a responsibility to ensure unemployed people have enough to live on (81% in 2001 to 59% in 2011). And the perceived deservingness of claimants has also fallen as shown in the Figure below. However, quite where the Daily Mail find that “increasing numbers believe disability benefit claimants have been wrongly classified as unable to work” is beyond me.
The surprising resilience of British solidarity
What I want to argue, though, is that this picture is grossly misleading. What’s particularly surprising, in fact, is just how resilient British support for deserving benefits claimants is – and how its simply not true that a brute slashing of benefit levels for deserving claimants is popular.
First of all, let’s go back to those figures on spending. Remember that we hear on a daily basis the claim that public spending is out of control, that we are on the brink of a debt crisis etc. Despite this, 36% of people think we should increase taxes and spend more on health/education/benefits, while 55% think we should keep them the same – only 6% believe we should reduce taxes and spend less! Much of this reflects the popularity of health and education; there are mixed views on spending on ‘welfare benefits for the poor’ in general (38% think less spending, 32% want to keep it the same, and 29% want more spending – figures from britsocat.com rather than the BSA report).
But this conceals wide differentiation between different types of claimants. In fact, even in 2011 an absolute majority is in favour of more spending on benefits for (i) ‘disabled people who cannot work’; (ii) ‘people who care for those who are sick or disabled’; (iii) parents who work on very low incomes’; and (iv) ‘retired people’. These proportions have gone down about 10 percentage points since 2008 – but given the pressures on spending, it is amazing that majorities still support higher spending. It is only for single parents (where 29% want more spending, again a 10 percentage point fall) and unemployed people (where 15% want more spending, flat since 2004) that there is no majority in favour of more spending.
It’s therefore simply not true for the Daily Telegraph to say there is “a high degree of public support for further cuts in welfare spending. Where once the Tories were regarded as cruel and heartless for wanting to slash benefits, it now seems that they can’t be tough enough.” [Credit to Allister Heath in the Telegraph for his particularly nuanced take].
A very similar story can be seen when looking at the government’s responsibility to ensure adequate living standards. In 1998, 80% of people thought it was the Government should be mainly responsible for ‘ensuring that people have enough to live on if they become sick for a long time or disabled.’ In 2010, this figure is – 84%. This hardly shows that there has been a fall in public support for the ‘genuinely’ disabled.
Instead, the fall in the belief in government’s responsibility has primarily been for unemployed people, which sank between 2003 and 2011 (the question wasn’t asked between then, so we don’t quite know when it changed). My feeling here is that this is following rather than leading policy – when we got into the recession, people realised just how abysmal the safety net for unemployed people was, and how much they had to rely on their savings and their families (both of which were themes in the media coverage at the start of the recession). So it’s no wonder that the belief that this was a government responsibility fell, nor that this fall was particularly sharp among higher occupations.
The real issue in public attitudes
The issue in British public attitudes is not that people have lost their support for deserving claimants – it’s that we’re more likely to think that the balance between deserving and undeserving claimants has gone awry. Moreover, there’s nothing new about this; it actually dates from the time of New Labour, and was particularly pronounced among Labour voters, as I discuss in this paper.
Deservingness is an issue we’ve covered on the blog many times before – see these posts. And this is a theme that I’ll come back to repeatedly over the coming months, as I explore the findings on the stigma of claiming benefits in a report (with Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney) coming out in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, there are obvious reasons to be concerned about public attitudes to benefit claimants – but also signs that Britons have not lost their feeling for their fellow citizens completely. And next week I’ll look at how this relates to some other research on attitudes to the benefits system across time and place.