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.
[The paper develops the analysis from the initial project report, co-authored with the excellent Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney for the charity Elizabeth Finn Care/turn2us. The survey is a face-to-face quota sample with a boost sample of benefits claimants, weighted to be representative of the general population, and is probably more representative than an internet poll but less so than the British Social Attitudes survey. You can read more about the methods in the full paper, and you can access the data and replicate the analyses from my website. And in a separate blog post, I talk about the main results on the extent of benefits stigma in Britain].
Claim rates and benefits stigma
To begin with, we need to see if self-reported benefits stigma is associated with local claims, which here means the out-of-work benefit claim rate in a person’s neighbourhood. I use a number of different measures of stigma (I describe these further in the full paper):
- ‘Personal stigma’ – whether the respondent him/herself agrees people should feel ashamed to claim benefits
- ‘Social stigma’ – whether the respondent agrees that other people think that people should feel ashamed to claim benefit
- ‘Claims stigma’ – whether the respondent disagrees that people are treated with respect when they claim benefits
- ‘Non-take-up’ – whether the respondent gives a shame-related reason for saying that they would delay claiming benefits if they needed them (whether linked to personal stigma, social stigma, or claims stigma).
Looking across these different measures, we see an unexpectedly inconsistent pattern. Respondents in high-claim areas (those in the middle of the top half of neighbourhoods) were 4.8% less likely to say that factors related to personal shame would delay them in claiming benefits, compared to those in low-claim areas (those in the middle of the bottom half of neighbourhoods) – seemingly in support of Murray’s argument. Yet simultaneously, those in high-claim areas were 5.4% more likely to agree that people should feel ashamed to claim benefits than those in low-claim neighbourhoods. And overall, people in high-claim areas were 3.7% more likely to give a stigma/shame-related response of some kind.
These results are similar when I control for people’s social/economic situation and the labour market in their local authority. But when controlled for other characteristics of the neighbourhood itself –not reported in the original paper, as I only did these further analyses more recently – the results change. (These further control for the neighbourhood level of in-work tax credit claims among families, and neighbourhood deprivation (the index of multiple deprivation excluding the bits about benefits, leaving measures of inter alia health, education, housing, crime, and road traffic accidents).
After adding these further controls, high-claim areas do have lower stigma than low-claim areas – at least in terms of whether shame would influence their decision to claim benefits if they needed them. (Those in high-claim areas are 9.3% less likely to give a reason for delaying claiming related to personal stigma). However, there is no significant effect of the neighbourhood claim rate on most other stigma measures. And crucially, neighbourhood deprivation seems to matter much more than levels of claims – with more deprived neighbourhoods reporting much more stigma (in terms of social stigma, delaying claims due to personal stigma), and being as much as 16.3% more likely to give a stigma/shame-related response at some point.
So are there neighbourhoods where benefit claims aren’t stigmatised?
Put simply, I think these results suggest the neighbourhood ‘dependency culture’ account is wrong. People in high-claim neighbourhoods are less likely to say that pride puts them off claiming, but more likely to say that claimants should feel ashamed. And while the latter finding disappears when we control for neighbourhood deprivation, this is only because those living in deprived neighbourhoods are much more likely to report some types of benefits stigma. It’s worth flagging that self-reported measures of benefits stigma have their limits, as I discuss here. But if neighbourhood benefits claims had some systematic ‘corrosive’ effect on neighbourhood norms, then this is simply not what we would see.
Clearly this is only one part of the debate about ‘dependency culture’, as I review in the full paper. There is some evidence that people are more likely to claim benefits if people around them claim, and that the children of claimants are more likely to claim than other people – but for both of these, it’s unclear whether this is because of stigma, or simply because it’s obviously easier to claim the benefits you’re entitled to if you know they exist (and how to claim them). In contrast, surveys and qualitative studies alike have consistently failed to find a lower work ethic among benefit claimants (and those more likely to claim). There is little evidence that benefit claimants are a separate group with different attitudes to everyone else – perhaps because to believe that the world is divided into two groups of lifetime claiming ‘skivers’ vs. never-claiming ‘strivers’ is fundamentally to misunderstand the benefits system, as John Hills has pointed out.