Free rider phobia

Nearly half of us think that other people get unfair welfare priority
February 20, 2004

Where we live affects our attitudes and quality of life. This doesn't just mean the physical environment, it includes the kind of people who live nearby. This may be obvious but it becomes a sensitive issue for public policy when the extent of diversity, and in particular ethnic diversity, appears to have a big impact on our views.

According to a number of surveys, there has been a clear decline in our levels of trust in others. Some dispute whether the scale of the decline is as great as others claim, or whether reported levels of trust gathered through surveys are meaningful. But on balance it seems that there has been a significant fall, particularly if we look at trends since the 1950s.

The reasons for this decline are hotly debated, particularly as there seems to be an "education paradox" - high trust is strongly linked with higher levels of education, yet despite rising levels of education, trust has continued to decline.

One powerful force reducing trust may be mobility and population "churn." In certain parts of the country, especially big cities, people are less likely to belong to the area or to have grown up there. Both national and international migration have created far more diverse communities, and recent analysis suggests this may have a negative impact on trust.

We need to be careful about how we interpret this information. At least some of the relationship between diversity and trust will be explained by factors such as urban density and deprivation. For example, there is a strong link between ratings of local councils by residents and levels of deprivation. As we might expect, the higher the local level of deprivation, the lower the levels of satisfaction. But when we plot the level of deprivation against ratings of councils, many of those that stand out as higher or lower than we would predict tend to be very diverse (such as Brent) or very homogenous (such as Gateshead and Sunderland).

A new Mori/Prospect poll has explored the impact of diversity on community cohesion further and come up with some varied findings. Nearly four in ten respondents (39 per cent) say they would rather live in an area where people are from the same ethnic background as themselves. This is higher than we might have expected, especially given people's tendency to give socially desirable responses to these sensitive questions. But, as David Goodhart's essay (page 30) suggests, such attitudes are often shorthand for wanting to live among people who share our values - which 85 per cent of people want, according to the same survey. And for some people the idea of ethnic diversity will simply conjure up negative images of rough inner cities.

Supporters of diversity can draw some comfort from the poll. Not only do 53 per cent of respondents not agree that they want to live in an area where people are from the same ethnic background, 65 per cent agree that having a mix of people in an area makes it a more enjoyable place to live. In their answers to both questions, younger people are much more willing to countenance living in an ethnically diverse area than older people.

Moreover, when asked to choose two of six reasons why there is less community spirit in Britain today, 40 per cent selected as one of their reasons "working longer hours," 35 per cent selected "time spent watching television or on the internet," 20 per cent selected "people moving home more often" and only in fourth place - with 17 per cent - came "there are more newcomers to the country, including immigrants and asylum seekers."

But in any case, it seems that many people's concern about ethnic diversity can be understood as a subset of a broader anxiety about free riders. When asked in the poll whether other people get unfair priority when it comes to public services and state benefits, 45 per cent agree that they do. This rises to over half among lower social classes, who have most contact with these services and benefits, and therefore most to lose. The level of suspicion is startling but it is not new. A 1996 survey revealed that on average people thought ?37 of every ?100 of welfare benefits was being paid out in fraudulent claims. People are very sensitive to freeloading, and believe it is widespread.

Ten or 15 years ago, lone parents and the unemployed were the groups we were most likely to feel were getting unfair priority. Today, in unprompted responses, they have been replaced by asylum seekers (20 per cent) and recent immigrants (19 per cent) with single parents (8 per cent) way down in third place. As suggested in Goodhart's essay, this is not surprising. The first two groups are most obviously strangers to us, and we are less likely to identify with their position or be sure that they will share our values. Very few people cited established minorities - Asian people or black people. Indeed, we know from Mori's work for the Commission for Racial Equality that 86 per cent disagree with the idea that you need to be white to be British - which suggests that most people's sense of the British "us" does extend to ethnic minorities.

Concern about immigration is to a large extent media-driven - most people have little direct experience of, or contact with, asylum seekers. It is not just a matter of hype, however, and the rise in concern has closely tracked the rise in the number of asylum decisions.

Nevertheless, people do have an enormously inflated view of the scale of the issue. As a nation, we think 23 per cent of the British population are first-generation immigrants, when the actual figure is 6 per cent.

Reflecting the strength of concern, there is some appetite for restriction of welfare provision for immigrants. One in five believes that immigrants should get less welfare support than existing British citizens. However, the majority (58 per cent) believes that they should get the same so long as they demonstrate commitment to the country, such as through learning the language or history. Views differ most according to social class rather than ethnicity, with 28 per cent of the lowest social classes saying there should be less support whatever the circumstances, compared with 11 per cent of the highest classes.

These issues are too important to be ignored just because they are politically sensitive. But we need to avoid jumping to simplistic conclusions. Clearly none of these findings provides a case for attempting to reverse diversity in local areas, but knowing the unease that a significant minority feel about it needs to be factored in by the policymakers.

There are both real conflicts over the sharing of resources in more diverse societies and imaginary conflicts and fears. When nearly half of the population feels that other people are taking advantage, there is clearly a substantial proportion of irrational resentment in evidence. But that itself is a real force that policy must address. As well as a continued role for the nation state in sustaining a common culture, experience in the US suggests that distrust can be broken down and strong new communities can be built when there is a high degree of local control and participation in the provision of services.