Attitudes to benefits
There has been a widely-reported hardening in public attitudes to the benefits system in the past two decades. More recently, though, there are good reasons to have expected public attitudes to benefit claiming to have changed. If people’s views respond like a thermostat, reacting to how much they think is being spent on benefits, we might expect to see an increased proportion in favour of raising benefits spending following recent reductions in spending. There have also been rises in levels of social need in Britain – rising unemployment, benefits cuts and sanctioning – and also cost of living pressures even for those who are working. It is hard to predict whether this might lead to more support for the benefits system (both through rising self-interest and rising perceptions of genuine need), or to less support (through increased resentment of benefit claimants).
However, despite all these changes, the first part of this chapter shows that attitudes have actually changed relatively little in the past few years. There are occasional signs of attitudes softening: fewer believe that “large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits” and levels of support for spending more on welfare benefits for the poor are now at their highest since the economic downturn in 2008 (although there is no rise in support for spending when we look at benefits for specific groups, and there is even a drop in support for spending on benefits for retired people). Furthermore, one attitude that was thought in last year’s report to be softening has since gone in the reverse direction, about whether unemployment benefits are too low and cause hardship versus disincentivisingly high. Overall, changes in attitudes since 2009 are relatively few, and much smaller in scale than the far-reaching shifts over the fifteen years that preceded them. This seems to confirm that the longer-term changes in attitudes were neither simply reactions to a period of economic growth (which has now ended) nor to perceived increases in the generosity of the benefits system under the Labour government of the time (which has now been replaced).
However, it is crucial to stress that considerable support for the benefits system remains – a fact that is often lost when the longer-term trends are reported. Over 60 per cent of the British public believes that there is quite a lot of real poverty in Britain and that poverty has been increasing over the past ten years (both of which have risen since the question was last asked). People do not believe that benefits on their own are particularly generous; few people believe that unemployment benefits provide more than enough to live on, and when people are told the actual level of unemployment benefits, most people think they do not provide enough to live on. (That said, people also believe that low-paid jobs do not provide enough to live on, which seems to be the reason that a majority still believe that unemployment benefits are too high.) Previous British Social Attitudes reports have shown that majorities of people still believe that the government should be mainly responsible for ensuring people have enough money to live in retirement, if they become unemployed, or if they become disabled (Clery, 2012). Only a minority agree that many social security claimants do not deserve help, or that most unemployment claimants are “fiddling” – despite unemployment claimants being the most unpopular type of claimant in the benefits system – even if most people think that large numbers falsely claim benefits. Elsewhere we have shown that despite widespread concern about benefit fraud, most people do not think that most claimants are ‘false’ or ‘fraudulent’ (Baumberg et al., 2012). Finally, the numbers of people wanting to raise spending on benefits in general, or raise pensioner and single parent benefits are greater than the numbers who want to cut them – and there are outright majorities in favour of more spending on disabled people, carers, and parents working on low incomes.
This is not to deny that there has been a considerable hardening in attitudes towards claimants, or that many are ambivalent or favour lower spending on unemployment benefits, which are seen as too high compared to low-waged work. Still, an accurate view of public attitudes must be aware of the levels of support for benefits spending that nonetheless remain, which are often overlooked in debates about benefits in Britain.
Attitudes to benefits and cost of living pressures
While concerns about the cost of living are clear in both political debate and in hard economic data, the link between these concerns and people’s attitudes about the benefits system has rarely been explored. The slight recent changes in attitudes that have occurred – and the absence of more far-reaching changes – also raise further questions about the link between cost of living pressures and attitudes about the benefits system. We looked at whether ‘squeezed’ households (working-age households containing a working adult whose main source of income is not benefits, who report struggling financially) have different attitudes to benefit claiming, or whether there are any differences among those who perceive many others as struggling financially. And we report on how the attitudes of this group have changed over time.
In British Social Attitudes, just under one in five people say their household is struggling financially, a majority say they are not living comfortably, and a majority believe there is quite a lot of poverty in Britain. At the start of the chapter, we presented the fact that a reasonable case could be made that the ‘squeezed middle’ might have either harder or softer attitudes to benefit claiming than their more comfortably off counterparts. Their own financial struggles may make people more supportive of benefit claimants and the benefits system; yet equally plausibly the struggles of these ‘hard-working families’ may make them resentful of benefits spending. In practice, and after taking into account people’s age, gender and class we find that people struggling financially are noticeably more supportive of greater spending on “welfare benefits for the poor”, and they are more likely to think that unemployment benefits are not enough to live on. Likewise, where people in working households perceive that others’ poverty is widespread, they are more supportive than those who think that poverty affects only a minority of claimants and benefits spending.
More people are struggling financially than they have been in the past, and they also perceive others as being in the same plight. Although comparisons over time are made slightly more complex by a slight change of question in 2010, we see an increase in the proportion of working households in financial difficulties from 11 per cent to 17 per cent between 2006 and 2009, and then a rise in the proportion struggling from 14 per cent to 18 per cent between 2010 and 2013. There has also been a rise in the proportion of people perceiving there to be “quite a lot” of poverty, from 58 per cent to 62 per cent between 2009 and 2013, and a very sharp rise over the same period in the perception that poverty has increased in the past ten years, from 47 per cent to 64 per cent. In this sense, people’s experiences and perceptions do seem to have at least partly followed both political debate and the lack of growth in average living standards in the past ten years.
Finally, this raises the question of whether it has always been the case that those in working households who struggle financially are more supportive of the benefits system, or whether this is affected by the economic cycle. It appears that the answer is ‘yes’: most of the differences we see today are also visible in the year 2000. However, more recently financial strugglers in working households have become more sensitive to the disincentive effects of unemployment benefits, with their views converging a little with those living comfortably. This is not the case when we look at those who perceive there to be little or a lot of poverty in Britain, with the gap in attitudes between these two groups as wide now as it was in 2000.
The cost of living debates in the past few years have happened alongside occasional signs of a softening of public attitudes to the benefits system, both in terms of the perceived deservingness of claimants and in terms of preferences for spending on “benefits for the poor”. At the same time, those struggling financially also seem to have become more worried about the disincentive effects of unemployment benefits, relative to those living comfortably. However, there is little sign of change in other attitudes (including those around perceived deservingness and spending preferences), and even those trends that exist are relatively slight in comparison to the more far-reaching hardening of attitudes that came in the preceding 10 to 15 years. And despite this hardening, considerable sympathy for the benefits system does remain – which can be seen most clearly of all in the fact that even in 2013, there are greater numbers who want more spending on benefits for disabled people, carers, single parents, pensioners, parents working on low incomes and on benefits in general than the numbers who want less spending.
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- See also http://inequalitiesblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/a-softening-of-attitudes/.
- ONS Labour Market Statistics, March 2014, Table A03 for people aged 15 to 59/64, seasonally adjusted (www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-301417, accessed 15/4/2014).
- www.newstatesman.com/blogs/politics/2012/10/george-osbornes-speech-conservative-conference-full-text, accessed 20/3/2014.
- See Baumberg et al. (in preparation) for a discussion of other scenario questions asked in previous BSA surveys, involving an unemployed single mother and a retired woman.
- Survey respondents respond to the first three statements using a five-point response scale including a mid-point “neither agree nor disagree”, while the fourth statement has a four-point scale.
- In a TUC poll, people said (i) that an unemployed couple with two children would have substantially less than they ‘need to live on … without luxuries’, but (ii) that they nevertheless would be worse off if one of them took 30hrs/wk of a minimum wage job. Again, this implies that people do not regard a minimum wage job as sufficient to live on (www.tuc.org.uk/social/tuc-21796-f0.cfm, accessed 17/4/2014; this data is analysed further in Baumberg et al. in Preparation).
- www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/9354163/David-Camerons-welfare-speech-in-full.html, accessed 2/4/2014.
- We have followed the approach of the Resolution Foundation in focusing on working-age people, given that real incomes among pensioners have continued to rise while incomes among working-age households have been static (Office for National Statistics, 2013). The Resolution Foundation’s definition of the ‘squeezed middle’ is of people in households below average (median) income, excluding both the poorest 10 per cent and ‘benefit-reliant’ households (those that receive more than 20 per cent of their income from means-tested benefits, excluding tax credits). The definition here differs primarily due to the restricted income measure available in British Social Attitudes, which is banded (making it hard to exclude the poorest 10 per cent in a consistent way) and does not take into account the different sizes of households (known as ‘equivalising’).
- Note that British Social Attitudes only includes information on raw household income, rather than equivalised income which takes account of household size. Therefore, those struggling on seemingly high incomes may have large households or other dependents outside of the household.
- In the second half of the chapter, I look twice at the differences between those who say they are struggling financially vs. those living comfortably – the first time just looking at 2013, and the second time looking at how these differences have changed 2000–2013. In both cases, the results are presented using regression adjusted percentages, having ‘controlled’ for respondents’ age, gender, and education. This note explains how this ‘controlling’ was conducted.
The underlying logic between these comparisons is simple – they look at the average effect of these controls on the outcome, and then look at the association of financial struggles with the outcome, net of the average effects of the controls. In practice, because the outcomes were all categorical variables, we use multinomial logit models with dummy variables for age (dummies for 25–34, 35–44, 45–54, 55–59 and 60–64 (men only) vs. aged 18–24 as the base category), gender (female vs. male as the base category), and education (degree, greater than A level but less than degree, less than A level qualifications vs. no qualifications as the base category).
Regression coefficients for categorical data are difficult to interpret, so to make these results easier to understand, we present the results in terms of the estimated percentage point differences across the sample (technically known as average marginal effects). It is these average marginal effects that are shown in the tables in the main part of the chapter, but the full regression tables for the models are available from the author’s website www.benbaumberg.com.
- British Social Attitudes also asks people how they define poverty. People were asked “Would you say someone in Britain was or was not in poverty …” in three situations. Few people (19 per cent) agree that poverty is where people “had enough to buy the things they really needed, but not enough to buy the things most people take for granted”. About half (47 per cent) agree that poverty is where people “had enough to eat and live, but not enough to buy other things they needed”. And nearly everyone agrees (87 per cent) that someone is in poverty “if they had not got enough to eat and live without getting into debt”. In Table 6.6, we control for whether people agree with each of these statements, and then look at whether people who perceive more vs. less poverty have different attitudes to the benefits system.
- For example, these patterns might reflect the fact that people who are struggling financially, or think that many other British people are, might have different expectations about living standards (Hills, 2001), or that they have other features of their lives (such as disabilities) that make them simultaneously more likely to struggle financially and more positive about the benefits system. It might even be the case that people’s beliefs about the benefits system – or their wider political beliefs – cause them to think differently about financial struggles, given evidence that people are much more receptive to information and ideas that fit with their pre-existing beliefs (Jerit and Barabas, 2012).
- Question on feelings about household income: 2010–2013
Which of these phrases on this card would you say comes closest to your feelings about your household’s income these days?
1. Living really comfortably on present income
2. Living comfortably on present income
3. Neither comfortable nor struggling on present income
4. Struggling on present income
5. Really struggling on present income
Question on feelings about household income: Pre 2010
Which of these phrases comes closest to your feelings about your household’s income these days?
1. Living comfortably on present income
2. Coping on present income
3. Finding it difficult on present income
4. Finding it very difficult on present income
- Comparable data on benefit claimants is only available from 1995, but we can look at longer-run trends if we look at the full population. The 2009 level of financial difficulties (21 per cent) is higher than any year since 1996 in the full population, but lower than any year between 1984 and 1995 (where it reached a high of 29 per cent in 1985). Likewise, perceptions of poverty hit a high in the pre-1995 period; in 1994 71 per cent believed there was quite a lot of poverty in Britain and 68 per cent believed that poverty had increased over the past ten years (up from 55 per cent and 51 per cent respectively in 1986).
- This question asked:
Over the last ten years, do you think that poverty in Britain has been increasing, decreasing or staying at about the same level?
- There has been a decline in the proportion believing that people are in poverty if “they had enough to eat and live, but not enough to buy other things they needed”.
Data shown here:
The change in people’s definitions of poverty is one possible explanation for why the rise in people’s contemporaneous perceptions of poverty (where definitions have changed) is less marked than the rise in people’s perception that poverty has increased in the past ten years (where people are making comparisons over time within whatever definition of poverty they prefer). See also Hills, 2001 for an in-depth discussion of these questions in the British Social Attitudes survey.
The findings here are similar to Ipsos MORI polling that asks people to describe how well they are “keeping up with their bills and credit commitments at the moment”. In 2006, 12 per cent of people said either they were “keeping up with all bills and commitments, but it is a constant struggle” or that they were “falling behind with some/many bills or credit commitments”, but by 2013 this has risen to 19 per cent (Money Advice Trust 2013 report and 2006 FSA baseline survey).
A similar question is also asked in the major survey that follows a representative sample of British people over time (the British Household Panel Survey until 2008, Understanding Society afterwards), which asks respondents how ‘you yourself are doing financially these days’. The British Household Panel Survey finds a slight rise in the people saying they are finding it (quite/very) difficult from six per cent in 2001–2007 to 7.5 per cent in 2008 (Measuring National Well-Being: Life in the UK, 2014: Table 6.4). However, Understanding Society then shows a decline (12 per cent to 11 per cent) in the new survey more recently, from 12.3 per cent in 2009/10 to 10.9 per cent in 2011/12. This seems likely to be because a certain number of people drop out of longitudinal surveys every year (particularly towards the start of the survey), making them a less robust way of looking at what the British population think than the British Social Attitudes series.
For the question on whether many dole claimants are fiddling, the change 2010–2013 is only just non-significant at conventional levels (p<0.07), and the combined trend 2000–2009 + 2010–2013 is significant (p<0.05).
While not covered in any detail in this chapter for reasons of space, other signs of softening looking at 2012 and 2013 British Social Attitudes data are that (i) there has been a rise in people thinking that it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure a decent standard of living for the unemployed (see the 2013 British Social Attitudes report); and (ii) there has been a rise in agreeing that “cutting welfare benefits would damage too many people’s lives” (a rise in agreement from 42% in 2011 to 47% in 2012 and effectively unchanged at 46% in 2013). More puzzlingly, though, there has been a decline in the proportion of people agreeing that ‘Large numbers of people who are eligible for benefits these days fail to claim them’ (from 77% in 2010 to 74% in 2012 and 69% in 2013).
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