Attitudes to government spending on benefits do not operate within a vacuum. They are likely to be informed by attitudes to government spending and taxation in general, which, rather than remaining static, have been shown to be influenced by comparisons of what the government is perceived currently to be spending with the respondent's 'ideal' level of spending (Wlezien, 1995; Soroka and Wlezien, 2005). Attitudes to spending on welfare may also be influenced by the public's understanding of the current levels of individual benefits and the extent to which these are perceived to be adequate; previous analyses have demonstrated that individuals hold varied and often inaccurate understandings of the value of individual benefits, and express quite different views about their adequacy when asked about the real levels of benefit payments (Hills, 2001). The extent to which the public prioritises spending on welfare will also inevitably be influenced by the priority they ascribe to other areas of government spending. Moreover, an individual might have different attitudes to spending on different types of welfare benefits; as we have seen, there is a far greater endorsement of the government's role as a provider of welfare for the sick and disabled, compared to those who are retired or unemployed, and this might link with greater support for government spending on benefits for these groups.
To start examining people's views in this context, we first look at attitudes to government taxation and spending in general. Since 1983, British Social Attitudes has invited respondents to say which of three options the government should choose:
Reduce taxes and spend less on health, education and social benefits
Keep taxes and spending on these services at the same level as now
Increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits
The responses provided over time are presented in Figure 1.1. This shows that the proportion thinking the government should increase taxes and spend more on health, education and social benefits has declined steadily between 2002 and 2010. Rather than interpret this trend as crude evidence that the public is disenchanted with public spending in those areas, previous reports have emphasised the likelihood that additional spending will appear less necessary in times when public expenditure is known to be increasing rapidly - as it was under the last Labour government, especially on health and education (Curtice, 2010). However, to this we might add that when the government - as now with the Coalition - is embarked on a much-heralded attempt to reduce its budget deficit by cutting overall spending, that too might be expected to convince people that extra spending is either undesirable or just not possible. Certainly in 2010 just three in ten respondents recommended an increase in taxation and spending, which was only half the proportion who did so as recently as 2002. However, we can see in Figure 1.1 that this historical trend may now be reversing, as the proportion who recommend higher taxes and spending has increased by five percentage points in the latest survey, with a comparable decrease in the percentage advocating less taxation and spending. It is too early to lay claim to a new trend, but it is just possible that this shift marks the start of a reaction against the Coalition's spending cuts and a growing acceptance of the claims repeatedly made by Labour that the government has been cutting 'too far and too fast'. However, Figure 1.1 also shows us that currently the most popular option among the three identified in our question is that of keeping taxes and spending on health, education and welfare benefits at the same level as now.
While it is evident that the majority do not currently favour tax rises and spending increases across the three specified areas, it is useful to know which of the three - health, education or social benefits - is considered the greatest priority by the public. To explore this issue, we can examine responses over time to a question that invites people to identify their top two preferences for (hypothetical) extra government spending. The answers (reported more fully in the chapter on Health) show that, over almost 30 years, people's preferences have remained fairly stable, with health and education consistently identified as the top two priorities by more than half the population. "Social security benefits" not only receives a lower priority but, having been a top choice for 12 per cent of respondents in 1983, in the wake of the early-1980s recession, it is now prioritised by just four per cent.
Another, more specific question routinely asks respondents whether they agree or disagree that:
The government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes2
The latest responses suggest that the public is divided on this issue, but with a slight bias towards reducing current benefit spending levels. Almost three in ten (28 per cent) think the government should spend more, while four in ten (39 per cent) disagree with the idea. More than one in three (32 per cent) neither agree nor disagree - demonstrating that it is certainly not the case that most people have a clear view on this issue. In Figure 1.2 we show how the proportion agreeing that the government should spend more on welfare benefits has altered over time, plotted alongside the proportion, discussed previously, who think the government should increase taxes and spend more. For much of the last 25 years, support for these two viewpoints has tended to move in tandem. We also see that levels of support in both cases have declined over most of the last decade, but that the public has generally been more accepting of the case for increased taxation and spending on "health, education and social benefits" in general, than on spending more on "welfare benefits" in particular. It is also interesting that although support for a more general increase in taxation and spending grew a little in the latest survey, support for spending more on welfare benefits did not. Instead, support for extra spending on benefits has gone on declining through the first recent period of negative growth in 2008-2009 and on to the second recessionary 'dip', and remains at an historically low ebb.
The next issue we will try to resolve is whether, within the overall welfare budget, there are any particular types of benefit that the public is more prepared to support with extra spending than others. We asked people to say if they would like to see more spending on:
Benefits for unemployed people
Benefits for disabled people who cannot work
Benefits for parents who work on very low incomes
Benefits for single parents
Benefits for retired people
Benefits for people who care for those who are sick and disabled
Their responses and those obtained in previous years are presented in Table 1.2. This shows that public support for extra spending on all types of welfare benefit has declined since the late-1990s - with, in many cases, much of this decline being very recent. Most markedly, support for extra spending on benefits for disabled people who cannot work has fallen by 21 percentage points since 1998 and by 10 percentage points in the last three years. This is perhaps another reflection of the emphasis that Labour, when in government, as well as the Coalition, have placed on reducing the cost of long-term disability benefits, with public announcements that claims have grown faster than any likely increase in the incidence of illness and disability. People's changing views may, therefore, reflect a belief that people are being incorrectly classed as disabled or unable to work, rather than any 'hardline' view that disabled people do not deserve to be helped. Earlier we saw a record level of support for the view that government should be the main provider of welfare for the long-term sick and disabled, something that would seem to support this interpretation.
We can also see that support for extra spending on benefits for retired people has fallen markedly over time: by 16 percentage points since 1998. This could be symptomatic of an increasing view, noted previously, that government should not necessarily take the main responsibility for providing financial support for older people in retirement. Public attitudes towards benefits for unemployed people also stand out: partly because there is less support for extra spending here than in other areas - but also because, unlike the other categories, such support as exists has remained broadly level since 2004 at around 15 per cent. Much of the decline in support for extra spending on the other types of benefits has occurred since 2008 when these questions were last fielded. Even in the case of added benefits for those caring for sick and disabled people - consistently the most popular category - there has been a 10 percentage point decline in support since 2008 to 75 per cent.
The survey evidence reviewed so far does seem to suggest that the current government's policies to reduce spending on benefits and restrict eligibility are either having some impact on public attitudes towards welfare, or - as an overlapping possibility - being driven by them. We have also seen that the prolonged economic downturn has, so far at least, done little to negate this. It is particularly striking that support for extra spending on unemployment benefits remains remarkably low, despite unemployment having reached its highest level since our question was first asked in 1998.
To further understand people's attitudes to the level of unemployment benefits, we asked respondents which of the following statements comes closest to their view:
Benefits for unemployed people are too low and cause hardship, or
Benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs?
Figure 1.3 presents responses over time, alongside the proportion of the UK workforce who were unemployed when each reading was taken. Responses to this question have shifted dramatically over time. Following the recession of the early-1980s, when unemployment stood at 11 per cent, a minority of just over one in three (35 per cent) took the view that benefits for unemployed people were too high and discouraged them from finding jobs. By the early-1990s recession, the proportion expressing this view had declined to a quarter (24 per cent in 1993 - when unemployment stood at more than 10 per cent). But adherence to this view then rose steadily from the late-1990s, to a point where almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of the public takes this view today. Despite some fluctuations, it also appears that the current, prolonged economic downturn has had little discernible impact; unemployment stands at its highest point in 15 years, yet this appears to have made no obvious dent on the view that unemployment benefits are too high. This is not at all the trend we would have expected based on experience of the previous recession. Yet once again we see that public opinion is broadly in line with government policies to restrict welfare.
The picture we have painted so far is one of a sharp decline in public enthusiasm for increased spending on welfare benefits over the past decade. But is this a reflection of the wider antipathy towards public spending increases noted previously, or is it linked to particular views the public holds about the people receiving benefits and their entitlements? We turn next to consider this possibility.
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- 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
- 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.
- Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 1.7 are as follows:
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