A softening of attitudes?

BSA 30 coverYesterday, the latest British Social Attitudes report was released, and for once the story was about more positive attitudes around benefits. No more the headlines about ‘hardening’ attitudes; the headlines in the  BBC and Express talked about ‘softening attitudes’ (using the words of the official press release), or even that the ‘public’s rage against benefit claimants fades’. Given that I’ve spent the past year telling everyone that benefits attitudes are more positive than everyone thinks (like in this post that recently reappeared), this is something that you’d expect me to welcome.

But it’s not that simple. This is partly because I’m an academic, and my stock-in-trade is irritatingly disagreeing with the consensus (as my friends will tell you, this extends to pub conversations over pretty much anything…). But it’s also because if you get beyond a heartfelt desire to see change, the data are a bit ambiguous about what they show. In this post I look at the case for and against softening, and leave you to make up your own mind…

The evidence for softening

Let’s take a look at why the NatCen BSA press release led with news of rising support for state benefits. There’s been a number of measures that seem to show this, most of which look at whether people think benefits should go up or down:

  • ‘The government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes’: 34% agreed, up from 28% in 2011.
  • ‘Cutting benefits would damage too many people’s lives’: 47% agreed, compared to 42% in 2011.
  • ‘Benefits for the unemployed are’… ‘too low and cause hardship’ (22%, up from 19% in 2011) vs ‘…too high and discourage work’ (51%, down from 62% in 2011).

It’s also interesting to see a change in the two top priorities for extra welfare spending (since 2010) – mainly this has stayed constant, prioritising retirement pensions over everything else (mentioned by 72%), but there’s been a fall in prioritising child benefits (42%->35%) and a rise in prioritising benefits for disabled people (53%->59%). Perhaps this reflects debates over means-testing child benefit, and the increasing attention given to the cuts affecting disabled people (which has continued since).

[I haven’t summarised it here, but there’s also been a slight, medium-term rise in support for redistribution along several measures. There’s also some increases 2006->2012 in people who think it’s the govt’s responsibility to provide a job for everyone who wants one (52%->62%) – but no change in responsibilities to provide decent housing to those who can’t afford it].

The case against

The trouble with here is that these are primarily RELATIVE measures compared to people’s perceptions about current policies. So whether benefits should be raised or cut, and whether cutting them would harm people, depends on whether we think benefits are about the right level to start with. If we think that benefits have been cut, and our underlying view of the right level of benefits hasn’t changed, then we’re more likely to say that benefits should rise (or at least, not fall further). This is what NatCen in their report refer to as the ‘thermostatic’ account of attitudes (see p. xi).

When we look at questions that are about people’s views of claimants or how the system should look in general (irrespective of where it is now), we see less change. Basically, ignoring the aforementioned question about cutting benefits (a relative question), people see claimants as equally deserving or undeserving in 2012 as they did in 2011:

Table of results - see text for discussion

And even in the general relative terms about where we should go compared to current policy, support hasn’t unambiguously increased:

  • 34% thought that taxes should go up to allow increased spending, down from 36% in 2011.
  • 5% thought that social security is one of the priority areas for extra spending, up from 4% in 2011, but still bottom of the list of priorities – alongside ‘Roads’…

Perhaps the only sign that underlying preferences are changing comes from the sharp, medium-term rise in people thinking that it’s the govt’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed (52% 2006 to 59% 2012; no 2011 data provided). The lack of change in attitudes towards claimants mean that this won’t change further in future though; as NatCen’s Alison Park said in the press release:

“It remains to be seen what impact the coalition government’s welfare reform agenda will have on public attitudes, and whether the small recent upturn in sympathy marks the beginning of a longer term trend”

So how do we summarise what people think?

In other words: people think that there have been cuts to benefits, and therefore fewer people think that they should be cut yet further (because people’s underlying preferences haven’t changed). But other attitudes to claimants or spending have stayed unchanged since 2011. And this would seem to fit the results I see from the plethora of other opinion polls, and anecdotal reports of people doing interviews and focus groups – there may be slight and occasional signs of softening, but primarily what we see is an extraordinary stability in the context of a long-term decline in support for benefits.

To be honest, this isn’t a controversial account – it’s effectively what the carefully worded chapter by Nick Pearce and Eleanor Taylor in the BSA report says, maintaining the BSA’s team consistent ability to faithfully reflect their findings. And in fact the BSA reporting in the media was generally pretty good, with most media sources pointing out the small recent gain in sympathy should be set against the long-term trends of decreased support for benefits and benefit claimants. [There was also a nice piece by the Guardian’s Ally Fogg pointing out that the ‘unemployment benefits should be raised’ question is unstable, and the Guardian Datablog lets you play around with the numbers a bit more too].

But carefully worded writing is often ignored, while it’s the media headlines that linger on in people’s memories. My view is that welfare attitudes are not really softening – but as I’ve said repeatedly, they were never as unambiguously negative as people thought anyway.

About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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