Welfare / The role of government

The role of government

Public attitudes to welfare spending are inevitably framed by people's views about the nature and extent of the government's role in providing welfare. Since the late-1990s, British Social Attitudes has asked respondents whether they think the government, employers or individuals should provide financial support for individuals in different scenarios. Specifically, we ask respondents who should mainly be responsible for …

… paying for the cost of health care when someone is ill?

… ensuring people have enough money to live on in retirement?

… ensuring that people have enough to live on if they become sick for a
     long time or disabled?

… ensuring people have enough to live on if they become unemployed?

Table 1.1 presents the public's views over time in relation to government responsibility for welfare. It shows how the public discriminates to a considerable degree in its response to the four scenarios. In 2010, the latest year for which data for three of the items is available, almost nine in ten thought the government should be mainly responsible for paying for the cost of health care when someone is ill, while more than eight in ten thought the same about ensuring the long-term sick or disabled have enough to live on. However, when responding to scenarios that do not involve illness or disability, the public is far less certain that government should take the lead. When it comes to ensuring that people who become unemployed have enough to live on, the proportion in 2011 saying government should mainly be responsible declines to six in ten, and, in 2010, to little more than half in the case of ensuring people have enough to live on in retirement. The fact that the public shows the least approval for the government having the main responsibility for providing welfare for those in retirement stands in direct contrast to the hierarchy set out by David Cameron in his speech of 25 June 2012 (Cameron, 2012), when he sought to reassure the public that current welfare provision for the retired would be protected, before outlining how support for the sick, disabled and unemployed would be reduced. This priority given by the Coalition to maintaining the government's role as a provider of support for the retired is clearly at odds with the views of the public.


undefinedLooking back over time, it is also clear that the distinction people make between health-related welfare and support for the unemployed or elderly has become more pronounced. The relatively high proportions who say government should be mainly responsible for providing welfare when someone is ill or disabled have fluctuated only slightly since the late-1990s. However, the proportion thinking the government should be responsible for providing an adequate retirement income now stands 10 percentage points below its highest point, which was reached in 2001. Agreement that the government should be mainly responsible for ensuring unemployed people have enough to live on has fallen even more sharply - from just over eight in ten in 2003, to less than six in ten now. (Because of the absence of data for the intervening period, we cannot be sure whether endorsement of the government's role declined steadily across the eight years, or whether this change occurred within a more narrowly-defined period.)

If an increasing number of people are disinclined to think that government should take the lead in providing welfare for those who are unemployed or retired, whose responsibility do they think it should be? Replies to our question suggest that the proportions thinking that employers or individuals themselves or their families should be responsible for ensuring sufficient retirement income have increased somewhat over time. More than one in three (35 per cent) say individuals and families should take the main responsibility, while around one in ten (11 per cent) point towards the person's employer. More strikingly, when it comes to support for the unemployed, one in three (33 per cent) think the individual or their family should mainly be responsible, compared with one in ten (10 per cent) who thought this in 1998.

Although these questions were not asked during previous times of recession, we might have expected a greater endorsement for government's role in providing welfare in 2010 and 2011, compared with previous years, given that the need for such support would be more apparent in difficult economic circumstances. Conversely, our findings suggest a growing minority view that it is not the state's role to ensure the unemployed have an adequate income; however, we need to investigate further before interpreting this as a particular endorsement of the government's welfare reforms. The public, after all, remains strong in its view that government should provide for the long-term sick and disabled, whose benefits are also being reassessed. So, having established that the public differentiates between different types of welfare support and its recipients, we next consider how far these distinctions are reflected in attitudes towards government spending on welfare.

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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: