Further increases in public support for benefit claimants

We’ve reached high summer, and this means intense heat, test cricket – and the latest installment of the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, our bible for showing how our attitudes have been changing. As ever, I like to review trends in attitudes towards benefit claimants on the blog (see 2017, 2015, 2014 and 2013) – and the headline news from this year’s chapter on social security attitudes is that public attitudes are increasingly positive.

Support for particular groups

What’s particularly interesting this year is that we can look at changing attitudes to social security spending on particular groups – something that we only see every couple of years. The question that BSA asks is:

Some people think that there should be more government spending on social security, while other people disagree. For each of the groups I read out please say whether you would like to see more or less government spending on them than now. Bear in mind that if you want more spending, this would probably mean that you would have to pay more taxes. If you want less spending, this would probably mean paying less taxes.

[The groups are: unemployed people | disabled people who cannot work | parents who work on very low incomes | single parents | retired people | people who care for those who are sick and disabled]

The big picture results is that support for spending on benefit claimants has gone up from 2015 to 2017, and this increase is particularly strong for disabled people and parents. You can see this in the red and purple lines in the chart below: support for more spending on benefits for disabled people has risen from 61% in 2015 to 63% in 2017 (and this continues a rise from 53% in 2011). There has been a similar rise in support for more spending on single parents from 36% to 42% (continuing a rise from 29% in 2011), and not shown in the chart below, on parents who work on very low incomes (from 58-61-66% 2011-15-17).

% who say that we should spend more on social security for…

There has also been a small rise in support (not shown in the graph) for more spending on the group who have been consistently the most strongly supported since this question was asked in 1999: ‘people who care for those who are sick and disabled’ (rising 73-75-78% over 2013-15-17). And at the other end of the spectrum, there has been a rise in support for spending on the least-supported group, unemployed people (rising 15-17-20% over 2013-15-17).

Strikingly in contrast though, support for more spending for social security on retired people has gone down slightly (from 49 to 47% 2015-17, and a huge drop from 72% in 2008). Indeed, for most of the last 20 years, there has been slightly more support for additional spending on retired people than for disabled people – but there is now a clear majority in favour of the latter. Indeed, support for more spending on retired people is almost at the same level as support for more spending on single parents. I’ve previously written about the declining (if still strong) support for spending on retired people here.

Wider benefit attitudes

The other extract from the data in this year’s BSA report concerns two questions about the consequences of benefit generosity:

If welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet

Cutting welfare benefits would damage too many people’s lives

This again shows a shift in attitudes towards seeing more negative and fewer positive consequences of lower benefits, as shown in the chart below. As recently as 2015, 6% more people agreed that less generous benefits would help people stand on their own two foot, compared to those agreeing that cutting benefits would damage too many people’s lives (with the gap being 12% in 2011). By 2017, this had swung the other way, with 13% more people thinking that cutting benefits would damage too many people’s lives – a balance we last saw in 2003.

% agreeing that…

As ever, there’s loads of other interesting material in this BSA chapter and indeed in the wider BSA report, with a particular focus on cleavages between younger and older people – though these haven’t changed over time (at least not for social security attitudes), so I will leave you to read the full report to explore this…

What this means for social security politics

As I have written above before (e.g. here), we need to be a bit careful in interpreting these: people’s responses are relative to their perceptions of recent policy, so if they think that spending on disabled people as been cut, then they are more likely to say that spending should be raised (even if their underlying ideal level of spending is unchanged) – something that is often referred to as ‘thermostatic’ attitudes.

Nevertheless, this suggests that after a hardening of attitudes towards benefit claimants under New Labour (particularly among Labour voters), attitudes towards benefit claimants since 2011 have been becoming ever-more positive year-on-year. How this translates to policy itself – and whether this happens under the present government or a future one – is another question in itself…

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