Since its inception, the British Social Attitudes survey has asked a range of questions to measure the public's support for spending on welfare and people's views of welfare recipients. By examining these areas in turn, we can reflect again on whether or not the public has become less collectivist in its attitudes towards welfare over the past three decades.
Spending on benefits
We first consider public attitudes to welfare spending. As shown in Table 2.2, the public is less likely now to identify spending on "social security benefits" as one of its top two priorities for extra government spending, with 12 per cent selecting this option in 1983 compared with just five per cent now. To measure support for welfare spending, we have also regularly included a question on British Social Attitudes asking the public whether they agree or disagree that:
The government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor,
even if it leads to higher taxes
It is immediately apparent from Figure 2.3 that support for additional spending on welfare benefits for the poor is considerably lower now than it was when the question was first asked in 1987; at that point, more than half supported extra spending on welfare benefits, compared with around one third now. Much of this decline occurred in the 1990s, from almost six in ten (58 per cent) in 1991 advocating this, compared with less than three in ten (28 per cent) in 2011. In 2012, however, we see another change of direction, with 34 per cent of people supporting extra spending (an increase of six percentage points). While this overall trend reflects a hardening of attitudes through the 2000s and even through the 2008 recession, data for 2012 may indicate a break in the long-term trend, although it should be noted that similar shifts in opinion in recent years have proved temporary. In either case, what is clear is that the public are much less collectivist now in terms of their support for extra welfare spending than they were three decades ago.
In addition to measuring generic support for welfare spending, we have regularly asked respondents to identify their first and second priorities for extra spending on welfare; the data obtained in 2012 and at a number of points over the lifetime of the survey are presented in Table 2.3.
In line with previous years, retirement pensions continue to be the highest priority for extra spending on benefits, selected by more than seven in ten, followed by benefits for disabled people (selected by around six in ten). Both of these have historically been high public priorities compared with benefits for other groups, although support for retirement pensions is now somewhat higher than it was in 1983 and for much of the subsequent decade. Child benefits rose up the hierarchy of priorities from the mid-1980s onwards; however, in 2012, only slightly more than one third chose to prioritise them, a reduction of seven percentage points since 2010. This might reflect public attention to the issue of means-testing of Child Benefit. Alternatively, it could reflect media stories about benefit payments to large families and public support for cutting these benefits.
It is among those benefit types which have traditionally been lower priorities for extra spending that we observe the most substantial long-term changes. While one third of the public in 1983 prioritised benefits for the unemployed for extra spending, only slightly more than one in ten do so now - reflecting the earlier finding that providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed is less likely to be viewed as a government responsibility than it has been in the past. However, the prolonged economic crisis does appear to have increased the level of support for extra spending on benefits for the unemployed in the short-term, by five percentage points since 2007. A similar trend can be observed in the recession of the early 1990s, where of the proportion of people prioritising extra spending on unemployment benefits increased by ten percentage points between 1991 and 1993. This suggests that, while support for increased spending on unemployment benefits is in long-term decline, this decline can be abated in difficult economic circumstances. This reflects the finding of a recent analysis of British Social Attitudes data which concluded that, while attitudes to welfare are generally less clearly linked to economic circumstances than they have been in the past, this does remain the case for attitudes to the unemployed (Clery et al., 2013).
It is also interesting to note that support for extra spending on benefits for single parents remains low, at 14 per cent, a decline from the 21 per cent who prioritised this area for extra spending in 1983. This may reflect decreased support for the government's role in providing support for disadvantaged groups such as the unemployed and those who cannot afford decent housing noted earlier - assuming that the public view single parents in this light.
To probe this question further, we next turn to examine a series of long-standing questions about benefit recipients.
Views of welfare recipients
Since 1987 we have asked whether people agree or disagree with each of the following statements about welfare recipients in general and people in receipt of unemployment benefits specifically:
Cutting benefits would damage too many people's lives
Many people who get social security don't really deserve any help
Around here, most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one
Most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another
Large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits
As Table 2.4 shows, around a third agree that welfare recipients "don't really deserve any help", similar to the proportion who agreed with this when the question was first asked in 1987 - although there have been some fluctuations over time, most markedly with agreement declining during the period of the early 1990s recession. On the other hand, nearly half agree that cutting benefits would "damage too many people's lives". While this figure is lower than the six in ten who subscribed to this view when the question was first asked in 2000, it nevertheless has risen by five percentage points between 2011 and 2012.
When it comes to recipients of unemployment benefits in particular, more than a third agree that most people in this group are "fiddling one way or another", with little evidence of change over time. Similarly, more than eight in 10 people agree with the proposition that, "large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits". While this is substantially higher than the proportion in the late 1980s who thought this (around two-thirds in 1987), this figure hasn't changed to a large degree since the late 1990s.
Despite stability in these views, levels of adherence to the belief that "most unemployed people could find a job if they wanted one" have changed substantially over the past three decades. Around a third of the public expressed this view in the early 1990s; this had increased to more than two-thirds by the mid-2000s. There is some evidence to suggest that support for this view declines in times of recession (agreement stood at a low point after the early 1990s recession), and it is in this context that we might view the decline in agreement since the financial crisis struck - from 68 per cent in 2008 to 54 per cent in 2012. Nevertheless, it is clear that the public views recipients of unemployment benefit as less deserving of welfare support than was the case three decades ago. Interestingly, this perception does not appear to have influenced views on the deservingness of welfare recipients as a whole. In addition, it appears that substantial levels of distrust of benefit claimants can apparently go hand in hand with an increased recognition that work is harder to find in an economic downturn.
These trends may explain why support for extra spending on unemployment benefits and agreement that the government is responsible for providing a good standard of living for the unemployed have declined in the long-term, while support for other areas of welfare provision and spending have experienced little change. In other words, the public may view the unemployed as less deserving than they have in the past, but this perception is limited to this particular type of welfare recipient.
To explore this further, we ask respondents to choose which of the following two statements comes closest to their view:
Benefits for unemployed people are too low and cause hardship,
benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs
The responses obtained, presented in Figure 2.4, indicate a long-term shift towards the view that benefits are too high and discourage work (35 per cent in 1983, compared with 51 per cent in 2012). The increase in the belief that benefits are too high began in the late 1990s when Labour came into power, and continued until 2008. Previous analyses of British Social Attitudes data have interpreted this trend as evidence that the views of the public, and of Labour Party supporters in particular, have moved in line with the tougher stance adopted by the Labour Party from the mid-1990s towards out-of-work benefits for working age claimants (Curtice, 2010; Clery, 2012). However, we cannot be certain whether the views of Labour Party supporters changed in response to the changing policy direction of their party, or vice versa. It should also be borne in mind that the composition of the group identifying themselves as Labour Party supporters would not have been static throughout this period.
Attitudes towards unemployment benefits perceptibly shifted in 2012, however, as the proportion saying that benefits for the unemployed are "too high and discourage work" fell by 11 percentage points to 51 per cent. This reflects the increase in support for extra spending on the unemployed, and suggests that we may be seeing the start of a decline in negative attitudes towards this group of benefit recipients, likely to be driven by current experiences of economic hardship. Nevertheless, the fact remains that attitudes to the unemployed and the role of government in providing support to them, across a range of measures, are much less sympathetic now than they were three decades ago - suggesting, again, that the public have become less 'collectivist' in relation to this group.
Although public attitudes to the unemployed are less collectivist than three decades ago, there are visible signs of change since 2011, with attitudes towards spending on unemployment benefits and the deservingness of recipients becoming less negative. To understand this specific pattern of change, we now consider whether it has occurred across the public as a whole or is confined to specific sections of society, and the likely explanations for this.
- Download chapter
1. 1987 was chosen as the starting point for our analysis in order to use a comparable measure of social class with all subsequent years.
2. The bases for Table 2.5 are as follows:
3. The bases for Table 2.6 are as follows:
4. The bases for Table 2.7 are as follows:
5. The bases for Table 2.8 are as follows:
- Related links