Welfare / Setting the scene

Setting the scene

We begin by outlining the two developments which we might expect to inform public attitudes to welfare in Britain in 2011 and beyond.

In 2011, Britain entered the first double-dip recession since 1975, having experienced the deepest recession since World War II in 2008-2009 as a result of the financial crisis. The impact of the recessions on individuals' lives and employment, examined in the chapter on Work and wellbeing, means that a larger proportion of the public might now have experience of welfare than would be the case in better economic times. This is reflected in the fact that the unemployment rate rose to 8.1 per cent (2.57 million people) in August 2011, the highest level witnessed since 1996, following the early-1990s recession, after which unemployment peaked at 10.4 per cent in 1993.1 In such circumstances, we might logically expect attitudes towards welfare to become more sympathetic. Individuals would be more likely to recognise the need for welfare support, from media discussion or in their own neighbourhoods or workplaces, require such support themselves or know someone else who does. This expectation is endorsed by the results of British Social Attitudes surveys conducted during previous recessions in the 1980s and early-1990s (Taylor-Gooby, 2004), which have shown that attitudes to the poor and those on welfare benefits have grown more sympathetic in times of recession. Indeed, a review of public attitudes to welfare at the start of the economic crisis revealed the first signs of such a change (Curtice and Park, 2010), with attitudes to those on benefits appearing to become slightly more sympathetic.

However, developments in government policy, as mentioned earlier, might lead us to expect attitudes to welfare to move in the opposite direction. The Welfare Reform Act, which received royal assent on 8 March 2012, legislates for far-reaching changes to the benefits and tax credits system. These, over time, are intended to reduce the underlying demand for welfare support. More immediately, as set out in the March 2012 budget, the government is aiming for welfare cuts of £10 billion by 2016 (HM Treasury, 2012). The Welfare Reform Act sets out a variety of short- and longer-term strategies intended to contribute to spending reductions. Eligibility for a range of benefits is being restricted, alongside reductions in the actual levels of specific benefits being paid, while strategies have been designed to incentivise individuals to move off benefits where possible. For example, Child Benefit will be reduced for households where an individual is earning more than £50,000 and will not be available when an individual is earning more than £60,000, while Housing Benefit entitlement will be limited for social housing tenants whose accommodation is deemed larger than they need. An overall cap has also been introduced, limiting the total amount of benefits that can be claimed to no more than the average earnings of a working family. Among measures designed to make the welfare system more efficient, the introduction of a Universal Credit, from 2013, stands out. This will provide a single streamlined payment for people of working age, aimed at improving work incentives. The government is introducing a range of other changes intended to incentivise employment for those considered capable of work. Around half a million working-age people out of the two million claiming Disability Living Allowance are expected to lose their entitlement after 2013, when it is replaced by a more rigorously tested Personal Independence Payment.

undefinedHow might we expect these changes in policy to impact on the public's attitudes? Existing evidence from British Social Attitudes surveys shows how the supporters of particular political parties, when they have come to trust their party's standpoints, can be expected to adopt and replicate these when asked about their own views (Butler and Stokes, 1974). This tendency was especially noticeable under the 1997 to 2010 Labour government when attitudes among its supporters became markedly less pro-welfare as the party repositioned itself on issues such as equality and government intervention (Curtice, 2010). As a consequence, there are reasons to predict that opinion has not followed the pattern of previous recessions, because the public - under the long-term influence of Labour's stance as well as that of the current coalition - has embraced a more tough-minded view of welfare than it held in the past. We might also suspect that recent political and media debate about the government's welfare reforms - including claims that large numbers of welfare recipients do not really deserve their payments - will have influenced attitudes, inclining people to be less supportive of benefits and those who receive them.

To find out which of these two potential scenarios is closer to the truth - or whether the reality is rather more complex - we begin by considering how far the public endorses the role of the government as the main provider of welfare in Britain.

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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: