Spending and welfare / What drives attitudes to the welfare state?

What drives attitudes to the welfare state?

What explains these differences in support for different benefits and services? Petersen et al. (2012) use an evolutionary psychological hypothesis to suggest that attitudes are shaped by cognitive processes that trigger anger at perceived opportunist and parasitic behaviours. Their analysis of surveys in Denmark and the USA indicates that subjects' perceptions of recipients' effort to find work drives welfare opinions. Van Oorschot (2006) examines European public perceptions of the relative 'deservingness' of four needy groups, using the 1999/2000 European Values Study survey. A consistent pattern is found across the population, with elderly people being seen as the most deserving, closely followed by sick and disabled people; unemployed people are seen as less deserving still, and immigrants as least deserving of all. 

undefinedThese findings broadly support the attitudinal data presented in this chapter. The public operates a 'hierarchy of desert', in which pensioners who are believed to have worked hard all their lives to contribute to collective provision are seen as most deserving of their social security, while the unemployed are least likely to be considered meretricious of support (other than the position of migrants, whom we have not addressed in this chapter).

Some academic studies suggest that welfare systems create institutions that not only affect individuals' personal interests, but also have norm-shaping functions. Jæger (2009), for example, analysed International Social Survey Programme data across 15 countries and found variance in support for redistribution depending on the 'welfare regime' (Esping-Andersen, 1990). On average support for greater redistribution is significantly higher in conservative regimes than in social democratic ones, where it is in turn higher than in liberal regimes. But the variation in attitudes also changes by regime, implying a two-dimensional effect. This might also explain why the British public is strongly attached to collective provision that has institutional form, in particular the National Health Service.

Van Oorschot et al. (2012) use the 2008 wave of the European Social Survey to analyse attitudes towards the outcomes and consequences of social policy, which have thus far been neglected in the literature. In Europe, people are more likely to view the welfare state as having positive social consequences than to associate it with negative economic and moral ones. However, public opinion in the UK, as well as in Slovakia and Hungary, is skewed in the other direction, with relatively large majorities seeing negative economic and moral consequences and smaller proportions viewing positive social consequences. 

Reeskens and Van Oorschot (2013) find that negative and positive perceptions are not in a zero-sum relationship: people may, and many do, combine negative and positive perceptions at the same time. In fact, in more developed welfare states the public perceives both the negative and the positive consequences more strongly. The authors conclude that citizens seem to have a more nuanced view on the consequences of the welfare state than policy makers. Our analysis of British Social Attitudes supports this more complex interpretation of popular views on social security: it is not all good or bad.

Some studies have recently attempted to address this perceived dissonance between different expressed attitudes, by pointing out that perceived risks often crowd out people's values. This is a vein of argument which naturally leads to a discussion of the portrayal of welfare recipients in the media.

Citing Bartels (2008), who draws attention to the fact that many Americans support tax policies that run completely counter to their own values on distribution and justice, Kulin and Svallfors (2011) examine what they see as a paradox in people's expressed attitudes to welfare, which often run counter to their values (attitudes being focused on a specific object or situation, and values being abstract, idealised and general). They argue that personal values can play an important role in attitude formation, but the extent to which they do so must be understood by considering the moderating effect of contextual factors, and in particular the ways in which self-interest in times of perceived risk can cut across such values. This is grounded in previous work on the link between attitudes towards welfare spending and risks (such as Cusack et al. 2005).

Likewise, Petersen et al. (2010) analyse how values interact with perceptions to shape people's attitudes to welfare, in order to suggest ways in which contextual information can crowd out value judgements on welfare. Perceptions of risk derived from the media or elsewhere trigger a "deservingness heuristic", which spontaneously guides attitude formation whenever informational cues to the 'deservingness' of welfare recipients are available, effectively crowding out values from the judgement process.

In order to test this hypothesis, they carried out a pair of studies asking participants about their support for a specific welfare policy, after providing them with one of four short descriptions of a specific welfare recipient. The descriptions varied according to the perceived deservingness of the recipient. Just as Van Oorschot (2006) found, there were quite large differences in the participants' support for welfare provision depending on the specific welfare recipient they were considering, and how 'deserving' they were perceived to be. These differences were replicated across the sample, regardless of the participant's level of political sophistication (which undermines the 'classic' heuristic model which posits that such heuristics are evoked as a fallback mechanism when people are unable to link their values to a specific political context).

The fact that individuals are highly sensitive to cues that portray benefit recipients in an 'undeserving' light, and the finding that such cues can actively crowd out values from attitude formation, has major implications for how the mass media and political elites should frame public support for welfare policies.


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: