Welfare / Changes in views

How do views vary and whose views have changed?

To assess whether the public is moving towards a shared consensus on welfare or becoming more divided in its views, we focus on three of the measures where we have already identified a striking change in attitudes in recent years. These are:

  • whether the government should be mainly responsible for providing welfare support for those who become unemployed;
  • whether unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work;
  • whether, if benefits were less generous, people would "stand on their own two feet".

undefinedThe fall in the proportion of the population who think the government should be mainly responsible for providing support for the unemployed is one of the most dramatic changes we have observed, from around eight people in ten in 2003 to under six in ten now. However, by re-analysing the results to examine the views held by different social groups we find this is not an opinion held equally strongly by all sections of society and that the decline in support has not affected all groups to a similar extent. It is immediately apparent from Table 1.5 that those who are socio-economically more advantaged - who would tend to depend least on government support if they became unemployed - are least likely to endorse the government's role as the main provider of welfare. Thus, little more than half of respondents in a professional occupational group agree that the government should have the main role in providing support for the unemployed, compared with two in three of those in a routine occupational group. (On a similar note, 70 per cent of those in the lowest quartile of household incomes in 2011 think the government should mainly be responsible, compared with just 49 per cent of those in the highest income quartile). Less marked differences, though still significant, can be found between people who receive state benefits themselves or whose spouses do so, and non-recipients, with the latter group being less likely to favour the government being the main provider of support for the unemployed. Political affiliations also make a difference. While only half of those who identify with the Conservative Party agree that the government should be the main provider of welfare for the unemployed, the same is true of two-thirds of those who identify with Labour.

No less interestingly, Table 1.5 shows us that public opinion has become more divided on this issue in recent years. In 2003 something approaching a consensus existed across occupational groups and among supporters of the main political parties. For instance, around eight in ten supporters of the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed that providing support for the unemployed was mainly a job for government. Overall support for that proposition has fallen by 22 percentage points. However, it has fallen almost twice as steeply among people in professional or intermediate occupational groups, compared with those in routine occupations. And among Conservative supporters, it is down by 29 percentage points, compared with 17 percentage points among those who identify with Labour.


As the question considered previously was not asked between 2003 and 2011, it is not possible to determine whether the views of different groups became more divided with the onset of recession or whether these differences developed in earlier years. However, such analysis is possible for the next two items we consider.

Turning to opinions about whether unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, Table 1.6 shows that in 2003 around four in ten people in most sectors of society adhered to this view, with those affiliating with the Conservative Party being substantially more likely to do so. While this difference by party identification persists in 2011, the views of groups defined by occupational class and benefit receipt also appear to have become more divided. As in the previous analysis, we see that a negative view of welfare has grown fastest among people in higher occupational groups and among those not in receipt of any state benefits. The proportion of people in receipt of benefits who agree that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work increased by 19 percentage points between 2003 and 2011, among those not in receipt of such benefits it increased by 27 percentage points. More markedly, between 2007 and 2011, a period marked by the onset of recession, the belief that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work increased more than three times as much among those not in receipt of any state benefits as among those receiving them. And, among occupational groups, negative views have risen most among those in professional occupations and least among those in routine occupations - though there is little evidence of greater differentiation in views following the onset of recession.


When we look at the way different social groups have responded over time to the proposition that less generous benefits would encourage people to "stand on their own two feet", similar trends are evident. As shown in Table 1.7, there was no great consensus between Conservative and Labour supporters in 2003, but support for this view increased by comparable proportions in each of the two groups between 2003 and 2007, and between 2007 and today. However, for groups defined by socio-economic characteristics we see that the level of agreement has increased by markedly different degrees. Again, we can see a possible impact of the recession among those in a routine occupational group; their agreement with the idea people would "stand on their own two feet" if benefits were less generous has declined by three percentage points since 2007 - while agreement among those in a professional occupational group has risen by a similar amount. And, as before, while agreement has risen across society, regardless of benefit receipt, the rise has been greatest among those not in receipt of any benefits.


undefinedClearly, the increase in negative attitudes towards welfare during the past decade, while occurring in all sections of society, has affected certain groups more than others. While supporters of the main political parties are no more divided in their attitudes to welfare than they were a decade ago, the same is not true of groups defined by occupational class and benefit receipt. The growth of anti-welfare views among the least advantaged groups and those likely to rely most on benefits has been slower than among more advantaged groups, and there is some evidence that the speed of change has slowed, stopped or reversed since the onset of recession. Equally clearly, the support we have seen for elements and assumptions of the Coalition's reform programme is not simply about party politics; on two out of three measures, we have seen negative views about benefits increase among Labour and Conservative supporters at a similar rate. So, while the direction of government policy goes some way to explaining movement in attitudes to welfare among the public as a whole, the recession does also appear to have had its expected impact - but only for those groups in society most likely to need to rely upon the welfare state as a result.

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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: