Benefits are increasingly unpopular with the British publicby Duncan O'Leary / April 3, 2013 / Leave a comment
Attitudes to welfare normally soften during recessions. Not this one. After the downturn of the early 1980s, just one in three Brits agreed that benefits for unemployed people were too high and discouraged work. In the recession of the 1990s, only one in four took this view. By contrast, almost two-thirds of us agreed with the same statement in 2012.
This shift in public opinion provides the backdrop to the chancellor’s speech on welfare yesterday. It explains why ministers have felt confident enough to take on not just the Labour opposition but also charity groups, faith leaders, trade unionists and the National Housing Federation. “These vested interests always complain,” the chancellor argued, “about every change to a system which is failing. I want to take the argument to them.”
There may be something different about this downturn—unemployment is lower than during previous recessions, perhaps reducing empathy for those out of work. But there is a bigger picture. Hostility towards welfare has been growing for more than a decade. People are less likely to agree that “benefits for unemployed people are too low and cause hardship,” while more agree that “if welfare benefits weren’t so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet.”
Younger generations also appear less supportive of welfare than older cohorts. Demos and Ipsos MORI research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has found that those born after 1980 are less likely to agree that “the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes.” The younger people are, the less likely they are to agree that “the creation of the welfare state is one of Britain’s proudest achievements.”
The reasons behind this culture shift are harder to unpick. Many on the left identify misrepresentation of the welfare system as a key problem and it is easy to see why. Yesterday the chancellor complained about people who received £100,000 a year in housing benefit. Before the benefit cap, this amounted to all of five people, according to figures from the Department for Work and Pensions.
The bigger question is why the benefits system seems so open to such exaggeration. One explanation comes from Joe Soss and Sanford F Schram,…