People are turning against welfare, other than help for the elderly and disabled, doubtful that politicians give money to the right people for the right reasonsby Peter Kellner / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Since the 1980s, there has been a “marked decline in support for redistribution.” Photograph by Martin Parr, chronicler of modern Britain
If David Cameron didn’t know before, he surely knows it now: few political potatoes are as hot as welfare. For 100 years—from David Lloyd George’s plan for retirement pensions, via the Beveridge Report 70 years ago and a succession of postwar strategies for state benefits—politicians of every stripe have tried to build a lasting settlement. The government’s welfare reform bill is the latest attempt, and it is having as rough a ride as all the others.
At one level, controversy is inevitable. Welfare reform is a detailed, messy business. Almost any change is likely to throw up stories of genuine, if atypical, losers who don’t deserve their ill fortune. (The equally atypical, undeserving big winners tend to keep quiet about their luck.) When the Treasury is flush with cash, it can throw money at this particular problem. Reform when times are tight makes such stories impossible to avoid.
However, what ministers can do is try to work with the grain of public opinion on the basic principles of reform. Where do voters stand on these principles? YouGov’s latest survey for Prospect sought to find out.
A number of different, though related, issues need to be teased apart: the affordability of the welfare system as a whole, our attitudes to redistribution, the extent to which people think the system is being abused, attitudes to specific recipient groups, and the enduring debate over universal versus targeted benefits. Let us consider each of these in turn.
The public’s verdict is emphatic: we think the current system is too expensive. We asked: “In general, do you agree or disagree with this statement ‘The government pays out too much in benefits; welfare levels overall should be reduced?’” As the graphic shows (p32), a huge majority, 74 per cent, agrees; only 17 per cent disagree.
Just as striking is the breadth of support for cutting back. Majorities in every group agree. Not surprisingly, support is lowest among those living on less than £10,000 a year—people who generally rely more on benefits than any other. But even here, more agree (51 per cent) than disagree (35 per cent).