Welfare Reform has Public on its Side

So says one of today’s Telegraph headlines.[1]  Against a back-drop of criticisms from the Government’s advisors, many charities, lobbyists and pressure groups, and the new Cabinet Secretary, come the results from the latest British Social Attitudes survey.[2]

As reported by the Telegraph, 72% of the public believe the government should not spend more on welfare benefits for the poor.  59% think the government should not be mainly responsible for ensuring unemployed people have enough to live on.  54% think that less generous benefits would result in people standing ‘on their own two feet’ and 62% that benefits are too high and discourage work.

The Telegraph says this “shows that voters are squarely behind Iain Duncan Smith.”  The unusual hardening of attitudes during the worst recession since WW2 is attributed by the Telegraph to the public now accepting that “locking people into the benefits system is not just costly and wasteful: it is also socially destructive and immoral.”

The Telegraph goes on to say that, “An unreformed welfare structure will continue to act as a drag anchor on the UK economy and consign too many families to the wretchedness of welfare dependency. If there are faint-hearts in the Government questioning these reforms, Mr Duncan Smith should face them down, secure in the knowledge that most people share his views.”

In previous recessions, attitudes towards benefit recipients have softened.  This may well be because of the increased likelihood of any given individual needing benefits or knowing someone who needs benefits.  In contrast, this recession – the deepest since WW2 – has resulted in a hardening of attitudes.  The Telegraph suggests this is because people are becoming aware of the costly, wasteful, socially destructive and immoral nature of the benefits system.  But is any of this true?

The Telegraph pointed out that 72% of the public think the government should not spend more on welfare benefits.  They cite this as evidence that the public are “squarely behind Iain Duncan Smith.”  The Telegraph is wrong in its interpretation of the data, as the BAS report itself confirms.  In fact the public are neatly divided on this issue: approximately one third think welfare spending should decrease, one third that it should stay the same and one third that it should increase.  Therefore it is not the case that “most people share his [Iain Duncan Smith] views.”

The reasons underlying the attitudes towards benefits spending can be inferred from responses to other questions: 37% of the public agree with the statement “Most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another;” 35% that “Many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help;” and 56% agree that “Around here, most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one.”  There has been a large increase in the percentage of people who believe that the welfare state encourages dependence (54%, from 25% in 1993). The BAS report authors conclude from this that “a significant minority of the population consider many benefit recipients to be undeserving.”

Less than 25% (23%) think benefits are well targeted, while 35% think they are poorly targeted.  This fits with the finding that a “significant minority of the population consider many benefit recipients to be undeserving.”  Overall, “it seems the welfare system is widely viewed as inefficient and poorly targeted.”  Corroborating this, there is strong support for targeting benefits only at those who really need them (33% give this as their highest priority; 53% as first or second).  Ensuring provision for those who cannot work is of lower priority than rewarding those who work or look for work, or reducing fraud.

Evidence shows that supporters of a particular party tend to adopt that party’s views.[3]  Given Labour’s toughening on welfare[4] and this coalition’s actions with the Welfare Reform Bill, it is to be expected that attitudes in the public have also hardened.  Media reporting, which has become increasingly anti-benefit recipients and frequently refers to large numbers of unworthy recipients, is also likely to have had an influence.[5]  All of this means that the publics’ view of this matter is not necessarily based on truth – in this case the implied ‘truth’ that the benefits system is costly, wasteful, socially destructive and immoral – but is instead influenced by party politics.

None of this says anything about the truth of the Welfare system.  1 in 3 members of the public may believe that most people on the dole are fiddling, but the truth is that overall fraud costs only 0.7% of the total benefit expenditure.  More money is lost through customer or official error than through fraud.  The largest source of overpayments is for Housing Benefit at more than twice any other benefit, followed by Pension Credit which was still almost half as much again as the next benefit (Income Support).

35% may think that “Many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help,” but the majority are pensioners.   A huge 47% goes on pensions alone.   Only 3% goes to Jobseekers Allowance, and 8% on DLA – it is worth bearing in mind that this money goes to a group of people whom the public wish to see supported.

The slight majority may believe that most people could get a job if they really tried, but this does not fit the reality of a double-dip recession in which there are far more people unemployed, underemployed and otherwise unable to work than there are jobs.

Much of the support for reductions in benefits has occurred amongst the socio-economically more advantaged, and Conservative supporters, as opposed to the those in routine occupational groups or Labour supporters.  This division also occurs over whether unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, and whether benefits prevent people from standing on their own feet.  This division is of high importance, given that those with negative views are from the people who are likely to be least affected.

Are people really locked into the benefits system?  There is little evidence to support such a suggestion.  Of people turned down for ESA, 15 months later many are still not in work – suggesting that in fact they were not well enough to work.  72% of those found fit for work have a long-term illness that limits their ability to work.  15months later, only 28% report an improvement in this condition; similarly only 28% are in work – this includes self-employment, which may reflect the difficulty of full-time regular hours for people with long-term health problems.   Far from being locked into dependency, these people were instead getting the financial support they desperately needed.

A lifestyle of living on benefits is rare – many people move in and out of low-paid menial work, but this may well say more about working conditions and wages than it does about the benefit system.  And there is little to no evidence of a culture of worklessness.

Is the system costly and wasteful?  There is very little wasted on fraud.  The current cost is comparable to that of other nations.

Is it socially destructive and immoral?  There are no reasons to believe this to be the case.

The data suggest that the public hold inaccurate views on welfare, particularly in regard to ‘deservingness’ and ‘fraud.’   A hardening in attitudes is not due to the public realising that the benefits system is costly, wasteful, destructive or immoral; in large part it may be due to lack of knowledge, exacerbated by the statements and views given by the government and media.  To suggest that the public support welfare cuts, when the public is ill-informed, is dangerous and misleading, and in this case it is made worse by the fact that the public do not support welfare cuts.

[2] 29th report of the British Social Attitudes survey. http://www.bsa-29.natcen.ac.uk/

[3] Butler and Stokes, 1974

[4] Curtice, 2010

[5] 29th report of the British Social Attitudes survey. http://www.bsa-29.natcen.ac.uk/


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