Spending and welfare / Introduction

Government spending and welfare

Changing attitudes towards the role of the state

  • How can we explain the changes in attitudes to government spending and welfare that have taken place over the last 30 years and, more recently, in relation to the ongoing programme of welfare reform?

    Welfare 1



    Generally speaking, the last 30 years have not seen a shift to a less collectivist Britain. The public continues to support social welfare for vulnerable groups in society.

    Consistently high proportions say it should be the government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the old, and to provide health care for the sick.

    Welfare 2



    However, there have been shifts in attitudes towards social welfare for disadvantaged groups in society.

    In 1985, 81% thought it was the government’s responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. Now only 59% think this. Much of this change occurred when Labour was in power.

    Welfare 3



    There is some sign that the trend towards negative views of spending on benefits is starting to reverse.

    Public support for extra spending on benefits has increased, from 28% in 2011 to 34% now.

    Welfare 4



In this chapter, we consider public attitudes to the role of government in the economy, the provision of public services and social security, and analyse how these have changed over time. In particular, we address the question of whether the British public has become less 'collectivist' over the past three decades, in terms of the extent of its support for key publicly-funded services and the provision of welfare benefits to different groups in the population. 

Throughout this report we set out the many and varied ways in which Britain has changed over the last 30 years. One much discussed consequence of these changes has been that many people have more scope now to make their own choices about how they wish to live than would have been the case 30 years ago. But what impact might these changes have had on public attitudes towards the role of government? If individualism gives people more freedom to choose for themselves, perhaps they may be less willing to show solidarity with those whose experiences differ markedly to their own? As a result, we might find declining support for a welfare state that shares the risks of poor health or economic misfortune, or engages in substantial income or wealth redistribution. 

Alternatively, there might be other important influences on public attitudes towards the government's role in the economy and its provision of public services. These might behave in a cyclical, rather than a secular, manner. In particular, attitudes to government provision could be expected to be influenced by economic circumstances that shape the extent to which individuals view government provision as necessary and its recipients as deserving. Equally, reform of the welfare state has become a central and divisive issue in contemporary British politics. Attitudes are likely to be influenced by government policy debates and the extent to which people regard policy as sufficient in delivering an 'ideal' level of social protection. In other words, we might expect to find that attitudes are mediated by the public's current and recent experiences of different levels of provision, and the debates that surround this. In this chapter we seek to identify how best to account for changing attitudes to the role of government over the past three decades.

We also consider more recent changes in attitudes and how these might be understood in the context of the recent experience of recession and an ongoing programme of government welfare reform. As part of its fiscal consolidation measures, the coalition government has introduced a number of reforms to social security entitlements and levels of benefit payments, many of which have been subject to fierce political debate. From April 2013, a cap of £26,000 a year has been placed on the total value of benefits that can be claimed by families, affecting some 40,000 households. Child Benefit has been withdrawn from higher income earners and its rate frozen. The government has broken with the historic practice of uprating core working age benefits by Consumer Price Inflation and restricted the level instead to one per cent in 2013/2014, while the main elements of working tax credits and childcare support have been held constant in cash terms. Tenants in social housing with spare bedrooms now receive lower rates of Housing Benefit, while the national system of Council Tax Benefit has been replaced with localised assistance. Disability Living Allowance for working age claimants has been replaced by a new Personal Independence Payment and claimants of Employment Support Allowance are being assessed for their work capabilities, with those deemed ready for work transferred to Job Seeker's Allowance. In addition, a major new system of integrated benefits and credits - the Universal Credit - is being slowly introduced.

Although each of these reforms has proved politically contentious, the coalition government claims that it has broad public support for its measures to reduce social security expenditure, particularly for working age claimants. Opinion polls consistently show that large majorities of the public believe that many social security benefits are claimed by people who do not deserve them. Unlike support for the National Health Service, popular attachment to the welfare state appears to have weakened considerably over the last 30 years. In much popular discourse, the welfare state - once a towering achievement of the post-war Beveridge generation - has become a byword for social breakdown, irresponsibility and mistrust within communities.

undefinedWill this erosion of popular support for welfare spending survive the cuts to benefit entitlements? In previous recessions, public attitudes have tended to become more sympathetic to benefit recipients as the impact of joblessness and income loss becomes more widespread. Yet last year's British Social Attitudes report found little evidence of that happening this time round, despite the depth and longevity of the economic crisis. The hardening in public attitudes towards welfare spending, although far from uniform, showed little sign of abating (Clery, 2012). The coalition government has been emboldened by this popular mood to continue implementing its welfare reform agenda and even to heighten the political rhetoric accompanying it.

The second aim of this chapter is therefore to examine whether this apparent permafrost of hardened public attitudes has started to thaw as benefit cuts and other welfare reforms begin to bite. We begin by examining attitudes to overall levels of taxation and public spending, the role of government in providing public services and social security, and attitudes to whether government should reduce inequality in the income distribution. We then examine public attitudes to particular benefits and groups of benefit claimants, before probing the question of whether these attitudes have started to change, and if so, among which groups in society. In addition, we relate these findings to recent academic literature on the evolution of welfare states in the European Union.


1. 1987 was chosen as the starting point for our analysis in order to use a comparable measure of social class with all subsequent years.

2. The bases for Table 2.5 are as follows:


3. The bases for Table 2.6 are as follows:


4. The bases for Table 2.7 are as follows:


5. The bases for Table 2.8 are as follows: