Paper summary: Benefits and welfare

Long-term trends or short-term reactions?

British Social Attitudes has been tracking changing attitudes to the welfare state for over 30 years. This paper examines long-term trends in attitudes to spending on welfare in general and on specific groups of claimants in particular. It also assesses whether and how public opinion has shifted over the more recent period since 2010, when a combination of government policies aimed at reducing welfare spending and the continuing economic impacts of the recession of 2007-8 might have been expected to lead to shorter-term changes in attitudes – either among the public as a whole or among those who identify with particular political parties.

Public support for welfare spending has been in long-term decline

The last five years have seen, at most, a very small reversal of the long-term decline in support for welfare spending.

  • Support for increasing taxes and spending more on health, education and social benefits fell from 63% in 2002 to 32% by 2010 – and had only increased slightly to 37% by 2014.
  • The level of agreement with spending more on welfare benefits for the poor fell from 61% in 1989 to 27% in 2009, and remained low, at 30% in 2014.

Some benefits are more popular than others

When it comes to extra spending on benefits, the public is far more likely to prioritise pensions and benefits for disabled people, and far less likely to prioritise spending on benefits for single parents or unemployed people.

  • Sixty seven per cent place spending on pensions first or second in their priorities for extra spending on welfare, followed by 60% who chose benefits for disabled people.
  • In contrast, just 13% said benefits for unemployed people should be one of the top two
    priorities for additional spending.

There is a widening gap between Conservative and Labour supporters

Since 2010, those who identify with the Labour Party have become more supportive of spending more on welfare and more sympathetic to the unemployed, while the views of Conservatives have changed less or not at all.

  • In 2014, just 17% of Conservative identifiers agreed with spending more on welfare,
    compared with 44% of Labour supporters.
  • Seventy one per cent of Conservative identifiers believe that benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage work, compared with just 38% of those who identify with Labour.
  • In both cases, the gap in attitudes was wider in 2014 than it was in 2010.

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