Year after year, when the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey is released, newspaper headlines tell us of how our attitudes to benefits have hardened, feeding this into their wider discussions about the unpopularity of welfare, how our attitudes to one another have changed, and how the major parties should respond.
Last year was an exception, with headlines instead telling us that our attitudes might now be softening, although in my chapter in this year’s report I show how this softening was probably illusory.
But all of this talk of hardening and softening can be misleading. The singular strength of British Social Attitudes is that it allows us to see changes over time – yet we often become so obsessed with the change in the latest data that we forget to actually look at what people are telling us. And when we look at this closely, we do not see the complete collapse of support for the benefits system that many people seem to believe.
Instead, despite real concerns, we see a continued support for many aspects of the benefits system, and in particular that many types of spending should not be cut, that most claimants are not fraudulent, and that benefit levels are not generous.
So for example, BSA asks people if they think spending on benefits for different groups of people should increase, stay the same or decrease, explicitly flagging that this means taxes would rise. Even in 2013 – with politicians of all major parties talking about deficit reduction – more people want increases in spending rather than cuts for each of benefits for pensioners, disabled people, carers, single parents, low-paid workers and welfare benefits for the poor in general.
Indeed, there are outright majorities who want increases in spending on disabled people, carers, and parents working on low incomes. Only for unemployed people do more people want cuts rather than increases, reflecting a long-term decline in support for unemployment benefits across multiple measures.
The British public also does not believe that most benefit claimants are fraudulent. Given how confused public debate has become, it is worth restating this: people are clearly concerned about benefit fraud, but they do not think that every claimant is fraudulent. In BSA, most people (77%) think that “large numbers … falsely claim benefits”. But by “large numbers”, they mean (on average) a large minority, not a majority, as confirmed in a separate analysis of earlier BSA data (and surveys elsewhere). Hence only minorities in 2013 agreed that “many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help”, or that “most people on the dole are fiddling” (both 33%). People’s estimates of the level of fraud are an order of magnitude higher than the best estimates about the real fraud rate, but this does not mean most people think all claimants are fraudulent.
A further question rarely seems to be noticed, yet is one of the most intriguing. It describes a hypothetical person who relies on benefits (last year a 25-year old unemployed woman living alone), and asks what living standards this level of income would provide. It then asks the same question, but tells respondents exactly how much they would actually get (£72 per week after housing costs). In 2013, only a few people (7%) thought that she would have “more than enough to live on”, while nearly half (44%) thought that she would be not have enough to live on. After finding out the true amount, even more people (54%) think she would not have enough to live on.
In other words, few people think unemployment benefit is generous, and when they hear how much it is worth, an outright majority think it is not enough to live on. At the same time, more people think unemployment benefits are “too high and discourage them from finding jobs” (57%), rather than “too low and cause hardship” (22%). These attitudes can be squared; most people don’t think that low-paid work provides enough to live on either. Still, people do not seem to think that benefits provide a lavish lifestyle.
This is not to claim that black is white. The survey clearly shows people’s concerns about false claims and work disincentives, and from qualitative research and everyday conversation, it is clear that this angers many people. The headlines over the past decade were also not wrong: attitudes have become much more negative, particularly around unemployment benefits, as the chapter itself catalogues.
Still, this should not blind us to the real attitudes that British people have about the benefits system: declining support, some strong concerns, but still a trust that most claimants are genuine, and a belief that spending on “deserving claimants” should increase.
Benefit attitudes are not simply “hard” or “soft”, but complex and uneven. Creating policies that respond to these conflicted attitudes is tricky – but at least a clearheaded view offers us a good place to start.