Public attitudes to the benefits system: are they changing?
So, we return firstly to the question of whether, ten years after the income of working-age households began to flatline, five years into recession and three years since the coalition government came to power, British Social Attitudes can identify any shifts in public attitudes to the benefits system. With this overall question in mind, we look at public opinions about three issues: Are benefits enough to live on? Are benefit claimants deserving of help? And should government benefit spending be reduced or raised?
The generosity of benefits
People’s views of the benefits system are in part related to their perceptions of ‘how well’ benefit claimants live on the benefits provided. Since 1994, British Social Attitudes surveys have periodically asked people to:
Think of a 25 year-old unemployed woman living alone. Her only income comes from state benefits. Would you say that she …
… has more than enough to live on …
… has enough to live on …
… is hard up …
… or, is really poor?
They are then asked a follow-up question, in which they are told how much money the unemployed woman receives in state benefits which, in 2013, was £72 a week:
Now thinking again of that 25-year-old unemployed woman living alone. After rent, her income is £72 a week. Would you say that she … has more than enough to live on, has enough to live on, is hard up, or, is really poor?
These two questions together show how far general public perceptions of the adequacy of benefit levels are based on assumptions rather than knowledge about the actual amounts paid. They are particularly helpful in understanding the public’s views of unemployment benefits, rather than about welfare support more widely, as they focus on a single person without dependents, whose sole eligibility for benefits is through their worklessness status. (We see later that this group generally receives far lower levels of public support than other claimants.)
In 2013, before being told the actual benefit level, under half (44 per cent) of the British public think that the benefits available to an unemployed single woman would not provide her with enough to live on (that is, they think she would be “really poor” or “hard up”, Table 6.1). The same percentage think she would have “enough” or ”more than enough” to live on, and one in eight (12 per cent) say they do not know. When they find out that she would be given £72 a week, the proportion who thinks that she would not have enough to live on increases to 56 per cent, although the increase is primarily accounted for by people who could not provide an answer to the first question – the proportion thinking that benefits are not enough to live on only drops slightly (from 44 per cent to 42 per cent). This fits other evidence that unemployment benefits are less than most (but not all) people think is enough to live on. For example, in a study in which researchers priced up what a representative group of British people considered necessary for people to live on, benefits for single people were found to cover less than 40 per cent of the minimum income considered to be an acceptable standard of living (Hirsch, 2013).
However, the public in 2013 appear to be more likely to think that the benefits available to an unemployed single person are enough to live on than they were in earlier decades. When the question was last asked in 2000, more than half (56 per cent) of people thought that the benefits were not enough to live on, a figure which rose to 68 per cent when they heard the actual benefit amount. And it is an even greater change from 1994, when 70 per cent of people felt the unemployed woman would not have enough to live on (71 per cent after knowing the amount). These findings are of particular interest given that the real value of unemployment benefits has fallen slightly over that period. In 2011/12 prices, an unemployed person’s benefits fell from £76 per week in 1994 to £71 in 2012. Moreover, in a study by Rutherford (2013), its value compared to average earnings fell from 14 per cent of average earnings in 1994 to 12 per cent in 2012. So, rather than reflecting actual changes in the generosity of benefits, the shift in attitudes towards the adequacy of the benefits may be linked to increasingly inaccurate perceptions about the level of benefits (the trend is sharper before people are told the true value of benefits), to wider feelings about the ‘deservingness’ of unemployed, or perhaps to the perceived difference between benefit levels and stagnating wages, discussed further below.
However, while public perceptions of the adequacy of unemployment benefit levels have hardened over the past twenty years, it is worth stressing that even today there is very little feeling that benefits provide a very generous standard of living; only seven per cent of people believe that benefits provide “more than enough to live on”, whereas 81 per cent think they only provide “enough to live on” or less.
Deservingness of claimants
Deservingness of welfare support is a multifaceted concept (van Oorschot, 2000; Baumberg et al., 2012), and, for three decades, British Social Attitudes has included a number of questions which cover different aspects of deservingness. People are asked to respond using a scale from “agree strongly” to “disagree strongly” to statements such as:
Around here, most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one
Many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help
Most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another
Large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits
British Social Attitudes also captures whether people think the benefits system itself is encouraging ‘undeserving’ people to remain on benefits, with high benefit levels disincentivising paid work, or whether in fact levels are set unfairly low – combining people’s attitudes to the generosity of benefits with their perceptions of deservingness. People are asked:
Opinions differ about the level of benefits for unemployed people. Which of these two statements comes closest to your own view:
1. Benefits for unemployed people are too low and cause hardship, or …
2. Benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs?
The trends in responses to these questions since 1993 are shown in Figure 6.1 (with further detail in appendix Table A.1), with levels of agreement to the first four statements above combining those who “agreed” or “agreed strongly”. In 2013, there is widespread concern about benefits for unemployed people. Over half of the British public agrees that “most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one” (54 per cent) and thinks that “unemployment benefits are too high” and discourage people from finding paid work (57 per cent). Beyond unemployment benefits, three-quarters (77 per cent) of people agree that “large numbers of people” falsely claim benefits. Yet only minorities agree that “most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another”, or that “many people who get social security do not really deserve any help”. The most likely explanation here is that the “large numbers” that people believe claim falsely make up a sizeable minority of claimants (who are large in number), rather than a majority of claimants per se. This fits with other evidence that people are very concerned about some undeserving claimants getting benefits, but they do not think that most claimants are outright false or fraudulent – rather, they think this applies only to a substantial minority of claimants (Baumberg et al., 2012).
On the face of it, it also seems slightly puzzling that so many people think that unemployment benefits do not provide enough to live on (44 per cent, reported in the previous section), while only 22 per cent of people think that unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship, rather than too high and disincentivising work (see appendix Table A.1). One possible explanation may be that people think that low-paid work also leaves people with too little to live on, so that inadequate benefits may still provide a disincentive to work. This seems to be confirmed by an earlier (1999) British Social Attitudes question, where 68 per cent of people said that a 25-year old single woman on the minimum wage would not have enough to live on, and by more recent polling elsewhere.
Looking over time, it is clear that attitudes have changed considerably over the past two decades. As previous British Social Attitudes reports have catalogued, claimants are today viewed as noticeably less deserving than they were up until 1996, and this is particularly true for attitudes to unemployment claimants (e.g. Clery et al., 2013). Our particular interest is in whether there are signs of the impact of the growing pressures on living standards since around 2003 and particularly since the financial crisis in 2007, and of the public’s reactions to the coalition government’s austerity cuts regarding benefits. On the issue of living standards, there is some evidence that attitudes towards benefit claimants in general, and unemployed claimants in particular, softened in the late years of the Labour government as the economic recession hit in 2008/9 (although levels of support for claimants by no means returned to that of the earlier period of the Labour government). For example, public agreement that many social security claimants do not deserve help rose from 24 per cent in 1993 to 31 per cent in 2000, and to 40 per cent by 2005, before falling back by 2009 to the current level of 33 to 35 per cent. Similarly, 2008/9 saw a sharp decline in the number of people agreeing that most unemployed people could find a job – not enough to cancel out the earlier rise, but still easily visible to the naked eye.
In the years of the coalition government (2010 to 2013), there has also been a slight fall in levels of public agreement that large numbers of people falsely claim benefits, back to a level last seen in 2000 – providing some further support for the idea that attitudes have been ‘softening’ in response to changes in government policies and to rising social need. Yet beyond this, there are only small signs of any other changes since 2010. For example, the minority proportion in 2013 who agree that many claimants do not deserve help (33 per cent) is only slightly different from the 35 per cent in 2010. Views on whether most unemployed people could find a job have stayed static, and views on whether unemployment benefits discourage work have fluctuated with no clear pattern.
So, overall, while there are some signs of attitudes softening slightly in recent years, the picture is primarily one of a long-term decline in the perceived deservingness of benefit claimants (primarily happening in the late 1990s and early 2000s), with little change since. Nevertheless, it is worth stressing that public attitudes to benefits are not quite as negative as they are sometimes portrayed, an issue to which we return in the Conclusions.
Support for benefit spending
So far we have reported on what the British public think about benefit claimants and about the level of benefits. But perhaps the most important indicator of public support for the benefits system (at least from the short-term perspectives of politicians looking to garner votes) is whether people say they want increases or cuts to benefits spending. This issue depends not only on people’s attitudes to benefits, but also whether or not they support higher taxes, and whether or not they perceive a need to change levels of public spending. This latter point is made in the context that all three main political parties have talked about the need to reduce the public spending deficit. British Social Attitudes has frequently asked how far people agree or disagree (using a five-point scale) that:
The government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor even if it leads to higher taxes
In 2013, the public is split on this issue, with slightly more people agreeing than disagreeing that there should be more spending on welfare benefits for the poor (36 per cent versus 32 per cent). However, levels of support are now at their highest since the economic downturn in 2008. Looking over the past 15 years in Table 6.2, support for more spending declined between 2002 and 2004, and further declined again between 2008 and 2011 in the economic downturn, only to have risen by 2013. This seems to follow a ‘thermostatic’ pattern as we outlined in the Introduction: as benefit spending is (perceived to) increase, fewer people believe that we should spend more, and vice versa. So, after a period of government cuts, public support for more spending
on benefits seems to be rising.
However, “welfare benefits for the poor” covers a diverse set of different benefits, and it is revealing to look at the public’s responses to the following question which asks about spending more or less (again on a five-point scale) on each of a series of different types of benefits and tax credits:
Some people think that there should be more government spending on social security, while other people disagree. For each of the groups I read out please say whether you would like to see more or less government spending on them than now. Bear in mind that if you want more spending, this would probably mean that you would have to pay more taxes. If you want less spending, this would probably mean paying less taxes.
Benefits for unemployed people?
Benefits for single parents?
Benefits for disabled people who cannot work?
Benefits for people who care for those who are sick or disabled?
Benefits for retired people?
Benefits for parents who work on very low incomes?
The answers in Table 6.3 show a clear distinction between the public’s perception of ‘deserving’ and ‘less deserving’ claimants. In 2013, there is majority support for more spending on those who cannot work because they are disabled (54 per cent) or caring for someone who is sick or disabled (73 per cent), and for working parents on very low incomes (59 per cent). For these three groups, almost no one (five per cent or fewer) believes there should be less government spending. For retired people and single parents, more people think that government should raise spending rather than cut it (48 per cent versus seven per cent; and 31 per cent versus 19 per cent respectively). In stark contrast, far more people think that government should spend less (49 per cent) on benefits for unemployed people than think it should spend more (15 per cent).
Of course, these questions are not asking about absolute spending, but rather about whether the government should be spending more or less than it is currently doing. Therefore, the public’s views on whether there should be more or less state spending on particular groups are given in the context of perceived current spending on each. Thus, any suggested increases or decreases may reflect not only views on the ‘deservingness’ of each group, but also perceptions of whether real spending has got more or less generous – the ‘thermostatic’ element to people’s responses that we mentioned above.
Take retired people, for instance. It is notable that support for more spending on retired people fell noticeably between 2011 and 2013, unlike for other groups. This may well be a thermostatic response to the fact that pensioners’ incomes have been rising over the past ten years, and even over the past five years, in stark contrast to working-age households (Office for National Statistics, 2013). It may also be a reaction to the very clear message from the coalition government that pensioner benefits are being protected for the life of this Parliament in contrast to other benefits, such as this statement from David Cameron in 2012:
There is also a debate about some of the extra benefits that pensioners can receive – and whether they should be means-tested. On this I want to be very clear. Two years ago I made a promise to the elderly of the country and I am keeping it. I was elected on a mandate to protect those benefits – so that is what we have done.
In general, though, these attitudes appear to reflect the British public’s perceptions of the deservingness of each group rather than actual spending. Indeed, there is a ‘hierarchy of deservingness’ that can be seen across nearly all countries at nearly all times, whereby unemployed people are seen as less deserving than disabled people or pensioners (van Oorschot, 2000).
In terms of changes in levels of support over the past 15 years, there has been a long-term reduction in support for more spending on unemployed people and disabled people (the change primarily occurring between 2002 and 2004). More recently we can see that support for more spending went down between 2008 and 2011, as politicians of all major parties spoke about reducing the government spending deficit. Yet, in general, it is remarkable how resilient these preferences for more spending are for all groups except for unemployed people. Even in the context of politicians stressing the need for reducing the deficit, there is more support for raising rather than lowering spending on benefits for all claimants except for the unemployed.
In this chapter, we have seen a long-term decline in support for benefits claimants and spending, but – despite changes in spending levels, social need and considerable media attention – there has been relatively little change in the past few years (barring occasional signs of slightly softening attitudes). So far, however, we have been looking at the views of the British population as a whole. We now explore in more detail the attitudes of those who are struggling financially themselves, or think that others are struggling. Are they more supportive of the benefits system than those living more comfortably, feeling closer to those living on low-income benefit levels and or more likely to feel the need for the benefits system? Or are they in fact less supportive, perceiving an injustice between their earned income and the income available from benefits?
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- See also http://inequalitiesblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/a-softening-of-attitudes/.
- ONS Labour Market Statistics, March 2014, Table A03 for people aged 15 to 59/64, seasonally adjusted (www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-301417, accessed 15/4/2014).
- www.newstatesman.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/george-osbornes-speech-conservative-conference-full-text, accessed 20/3/2014.
- See Baumberg et al. (in preparation) for a discussion of other scenario questions asked in previous BSA surveys, involving an unemployed single mother and a retired woman.
- Survey respondents respond to the first three statements using a five-point response scale including a mid-point “neither agree nor disagree”, while the fourth statement has a four-point scale.
- In a TUC poll, people said (i) that an unemployed couple with two children would have substantially less than they ‘need to live on … without luxuries’, but (ii) that they nevertheless would be worse off if one of them took 30hrs/wk of a minimum wage job. Again, this implies that people do not regard a minimum wage job as sufficient to live on (www.tuc.org.uk/social/tuc-21796-f0.cfm, accessed 17/4/2014; this data is analysed further in Baumberg et al. in Preparation).
- www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/9354163/David-Camerons-welfare-speech-in-full.html, accessed 2/4/2014.
- We have followed the approach of the Resolution Foundation in focusing on working-age people, given that real incomes among pensioners have continued to rise while incomes among working-age households have been static (Office for National Statistics, 2013). The Resolution Foundation’s definition of the ‘squeezed middle’ is of people in households below average (median) income, excluding both the poorest 10 per cent and ‘benefit-reliant’ households (those that receive more than 20 per cent of their income from means-tested benefits, excluding tax credits). The definition here differs primarily due to the restricted income measure available in British Social Attitudes, which is banded (making it hard to exclude the poorest 10 per cent in a consistent way) and does not take into account the different sizes of households (known as ‘equivalising’).
- Note that British Social Attitudes only includes information on raw household income, rather than equivalised income which takes account of household size. Therefore, those struggling on seemingly high incomes may have large households or other dependents outside of the household.
- In the second half of the chapter, I look twice at the differences between those who say they are struggling financially vs. those living comfortably – the first time just looking at 2013, and the second time looking at how these differences have changed 2000–2013. In both cases, the results are presented using regression adjusted percentages, having ‘controlled’ for respondents’ age, gender, and education. This note explains how this ‘controlling’ was conducted.
The underlying logic between these comparisons is simple – they look at the average effect of these controls on the outcome, and then look at the association of financial struggles with the outcome, net of the average effects of the controls. In practice, because the outcomes were all categorical variables, we use multinomial logit models with dummy variables for age (dummies for 25–34, 35–44, 45–54, 55–59 and 60–64 (men only) vs. aged 18–24 as the base category), gender (female vs. male as the base category), and education (degree, greater than A level but less than degree, less than A level qualifications vs. no qualifications as the base category).
Regression coefficients for categorical data are difficult to interpret, so to make these results easier to understand, we present the results in terms of the estimated percentage point differences across the sample (technically known as average marginal effects). It is these average marginal effects that are shown in the tables in the main part of the chapter, but the full regression tables for the models are available from the author’s website www.benbaumberg.com.
- British Social Attitudes also asks people how they define poverty. People were asked “Would you say someone in Britain was or was not in poverty …” in three situations. Few people (19 per cent) agree that poverty is where people “had enough to buy the things they really needed, but not enough to buy the things most people take for granted”. About half (47 per cent) agree that poverty is where people “had enough to eat and live, but not enough to buy other things they needed”. And nearly everyone agrees (87 per cent) that someone is in poverty “if they had not got enough to eat and live without getting into debt”. In Table 6.6, we control for whether people agree with each of these statements, and then look at whether people who perceive more vs. less poverty have different attitudes to the benefits system.
- For example, these patterns might reflect the fact that people who are struggling financially, or think that many other British people are, might have different expectations about living standards (Hills, 2001), or that they have other features of their lives (such as disabilities) that make them simultaneously more likely to struggle financially and more positive about the benefits system. It might even be the case that people’s beliefs about the benefits system – or their wider political beliefs – cause them to think differently about financial struggles, given evidence that people are much more receptive to information and ideas that fit with their pre-existing beliefs (Jerit and Barabas, 2012).
- Question on feelings about household income: 2010–2013
Which of these phrases on this card would you say comes closest to your feelings about your household’s income these days?
1. Living really comfortably on present income
2. Living comfortably on present income
3. Neither comfortable nor struggling on present income
4. Struggling on present income
5. Really struggling on present income
Question on feelings about household income: Pre 2010
Which of these phrases comes closest to your feelings about your household’s income these days?
1. Living comfortably on present income
2. Coping on present income
3. Finding it difficult on present income
4. Finding it very difficult on present income
- Comparable data on benefit claimants is only available from 1995, but we can look at longer-run trends if we look at the full population. The 2009 level of financial difficulties (21 per cent) is higher than any year since 1996 in the full population, but lower than any year between 1984 and 1995 (where it reached a high of 29 per cent in 1985). Likewise, perceptions of poverty hit a high in the pre-1995 period; in 1994 71 per cent believed there was quite a lot of poverty in Britain and 68 per cent believed that poverty had increased over the past ten years (up from 55 per cent and 51 per cent respectively in 1986).
- This question asked:
Over the last ten years, do you think that poverty in Britain has been increasing, decreasing or staying at about the same level?
- There has been a decline in the proportion believing that people are in poverty if “they had enough to eat and live, but not enough to buy other things they needed”.
Data shown here:
The change in people’s definitions of poverty is one possible explanation for why the rise in people’s contemporaneous perceptions of poverty (where definitions have changed) is less marked than the rise in people’s perception that poverty has increased in the past ten years (where people are making comparisons over time within whatever definition of poverty they prefer). See also Hills, 2001 for an in-depth discussion of these questions in the British Social Attitudes survey.
The findings here are similar to Ipsos MORI polling that asks people to describe how well they are “keeping up with their bills and credit commitments at the moment”. In 2006, 12 per cent of people said either they were “keeping up with all bills and commitments, but it is a constant struggle” or that they were “falling behind with some/many bills or credit commitments”, but by 2013 this has risen to 19 per cent (Money Advice Trust 2013 report and 2006 FSA baseline survey).
A similar question is also asked in the major survey that follows a representative sample of British people over time (the British Household Panel Survey until 2008, Understanding Society afterwards), which asks respondents how ‘you yourself are doing financially these days’. The British Household Panel Survey finds a slight rise in the people saying they are finding it (quite/very) difficult from six per cent in 2001–2007 to 7.5 per cent in 2008 (Measuring National Well-Being: Life in the UK, 2014: Table 6.4). However, Understanding Society then shows a decline (12 per cent to 11 per cent) in the new survey more recently, from 12.3 per cent in 2009/10 to 10.9 per cent in 2011/12. This seems likely to be because a certain number of people drop out of longitudinal surveys every year (particularly towards the start of the survey), making them a less robust way of looking at what the British population think than the British Social Attitudes series.
For the question on whether many dole claimants are fiddling, the change 2010–2013 is only just non-significant at conventional levels (p<0.07), and the combined trend 2000–2009 + 2010–2013 is significant (p<0.05).
While not covered in any detail in this chapter for reasons of space, other signs of softening looking at 2012 and 2013 British Social Attitudes data are that (i) there has been a rise in people thinking that it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure a decent standard of living for the unemployed (see the 2013 British Social Attitudes report); and (ii) there has been a rise in agreeing that “cutting welfare benefits would damage too many people’s lives” (a rise in agreement from 42% in 2011 to 47% in 2012 and effectively unchanged at 46% in 2013). More puzzlingly, though, there has been a decline in the proportion of people agreeing that ‘Large numbers of people who are eligible for benefits these days fail to claim them’ (from 77% in 2010 to 74% in 2012 and 69% in 2013).
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