Welfare / Attitudes to the welfare state

Attitudes to the welfare state

To find out if attitudes to the welfare state are becoming less supportive we invited people to agree or disagree with these four statements: 

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

The welfare state encourages people to stop helping each other

Cutting welfare benefits would damage too many people's lives

The creation of the welfare state is one of Britain's proudest achievements

Figure 1.5 presents the proportions of the public, over time, who express a negative view of the welfare state based on these questions. It shows quite clearly that only a little more than one in ten people disagree that the creation of the welfare state is "one of Britain's proudest achievements" (if our chart presented the proportions taking a 'positive' view, it would show that 51 per cent agree with the statement). However, markedly larger proportions agree with the suggestions that welfare encourages dependence and discourages other forms of help. Slightly more than half (54 per cent) believe that people would "stand on their own two feet" if benefits were less generous, while only 20 per cent disagree. This is the reverse of the situation in 1993, when only 25 per cent agreed and 52 per cent disagreed with the statement. It consequently provides a strong indication that this change in perceptions could be an important contributing factor to the public's current lack of support for spending more on welfare benefits. We see that most of the increase occurred during Labour's long period in government. But the view now shared by half the population - that current welfare benefits encourage dependence - clearly also chimes with the rationale claimed by the Coalition for its welfare reforms. The onset of recession and higher unemployment do not appear to have dampened this view.


undefinedLess strikingly, we see that one in three people (33 per cent) agree that the welfare state encourages people "to stop helping each other" - a proportion broadly in the mid-range of fluctuating levels since 1983. By contrast, although only one in five (23 per cent) nowadays take issue with the view that cutting benefits would "ruin too many people's lives", the proportion is higher than when the question was first asked in 2001 and at any point since, with the exception of 2010. We should, therefore, note that it is the two statements here that ask about "welfare benefits" rather than the "welfare state" that have seen an increase in negative sentiments over time. This may reflect the fact that "welfare state" is often taken to include health and education which - as we have seen - are viewed as greater spending priorities by the public than welfare benefits.

To tap further into people's views about the effectiveness and efficiency of the current benefit system, we also included a number of new questions in the latest British Social Attitudes survey inviting people to agree or disagree that it …

… supports people in low-paid work

… targets benefits only at those who really need them

… is far too complicated

… is slow to respond to changes in circumstances

… effectively encourages recipients to move off benefits

Table 1.3 details the responses obtained, together with an overall assessment for each measure (calculated by subtracting the percentage taking a negative view from those with a positive view and indicating whether the public generally views the welfare system positively or negatively in relation to each issue). Clearly, on most issues, the public's views tend to be negative. A notable exception is the agreement of slightly more than half with the statement that the benefits system "supports people in low-paid work". However, less than a quarter agree that it "targets benefits only at those who really need them", while more than a third disagree. This accords with our earlier finding that a significant minority of the population consider many benefit recipients to be undeserving. Moreover, four in ten people agree that the benefit system is "far too complicated" and that it is "slow to respond to changes in circumstances". More than a third disagree that it is effective in encouraging recipients to move off benefits. Meanwhile, fewer than one in ten give a positive response to any of these three questions.


*(positive view - negative view)

It seems the welfare system is widely viewed as inefficient and poorly targeted - both in terms of who receives support and in terms of its ability to prevent long-term dependency. Since these perceptions are broadly in line with the presumptions underpinning the government's Welfare Reform Act, it seems likely that its implementation will, if attitudes persist, enjoy considerable public support.

Further evidence for this impression can be found in the responses to a question asked in the 2010 survey, inviting people to identify their two highest priorities for government to improve the benefits system. In Table 1.4 we see that targeting benefits "only at those who really need them" is the most popular option, picked by one in three respondents as their highest priority and placed among the top two priorities by more than half. We can also see that "providing benefits for those who cannot work" receives a considerably lower priority rating than "rewarding those who work or look for work", "making sure those who are entitled to money claim it", "reducing fraud" or "making sure those who save are not penalised". On this basis, we may reasonably speculate that the tendency in recent years for politicians of all parties to emphasise their support for 'hard-working families' during welfare debates has reflected or influenced the public's view.


Having found yet more evidence that public attitudes to welfare (and to unemployment benefits in particular) are closer to the thrust of government reforms than might have been expected during a recession, it remains to be considered whether these views are shared by all groups in society, or only some.

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  1. Data on the percentages of the UK labour force who were unemployed, using the harmonised ILO definition, were accessed using the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook Database, April 2012, available at: www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2012/01/weodata/index.aspx
  2. This question is one of eight items that contribute to the British Social Attitudes 'welfarism' scale, used to derive an overall measure of support for welfare. Further details about the welfare scale can be found in Technical details.
  3. Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows:

  4. Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:


  5. Bases for Table 1.7 are as follows: