The public express a high level of concern about poverty but seem happy to cut benefits for the group in the severest need, writes Peter Taylor-Gooby. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that, while the vast majority of respondents believe welfare spending should be either maintained or increased, most people view the welfare state for those of working age with suspicion. This despite the fact that workless households are the group most harshly affected by poverty.
The good news (for those who like the welfare state) is that almost nobody wants more cuts. Ninety per cent of those interviewed in the most recent survey in the authoritative British Social Attitudes series want spending on health, education and welfare maintained or increased. The highest spending services, pensions and the NHS followed by education, are the top priorities. In addition, 85 per cent think child poverty matters and should be cut back. Party differences between Labour and Conservative supporters on these issues are relatively minor.
The bad news is that most people view the welfare state for those of working age with suspicion. It’s in this area that the biggest party differences lie. The proportion thinking government should spend more on ‘welfare benefits’ has fallen from 60 per cent in the late 1980s to 30 per cent now. In 1989 two-thirds of those expressing a view thought unemployment benefits were too low and a third that they were too high. Now these proportions are almost exactly reversed. In 2014 over five times as many Conservative voters thought unemployment benefits too high compared with the number who though them too low. Among Liberal Democrats just over one and half times as many think it’s too high as think it’s too low. Labour voters are no more than evenly split. Unemployed people have few friends.
The same pattern of grudging support even among Labour voters applies to other aspects of welfare for those of working age. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only eight percent of Conservative voters put benefits for unemployed people as their top priority. Labour voters do give higher support, but that’s only 16 per cent, with Liberal Democrats at 13 per cent. The even worse news (for the poor) is that big majorities among all main parties support the benefits cap: 85 per cent of Conservative and UKIP supporters, 75 per cent of Liberal democrats, 70 per cent of Labour voters and just over half of Greens.
People are also unwilling to extend welfare state support to immigrants. Less than one in ten of all those interviewed think immigrants should have an automatic right to claim benefits. More than 50 per cent of voters for any party, except the Greens (and the Liberal Democrats for EU migrants), think migrants’ benefit rights should be restricted to a maximum of six months or less, whether the migrants come from EU countries or elsewhere.
The overall pattern of attitudes is, from an academic perspective, surprising. As Ruth Lupton, John Hills and others show, spending on the NHS and schools has been (at least in the relative sense used by the Treasury), ring-fenced, so that cuts here have been less severe than in other areas. Working age welfare has been hit hardest, from the harsh treatment of Sure Start through to the below inflation uprating of all benefits for this group, the cuts in child benefit, tax credits and housing benefit and the benefits cap.
The big success stories of recent welfare have been the decline in pensioner poverty (down from 2.1 million in 1991 to less than half that now) and in child poverty (down from 4 million in 1992 to a third of that by 2004 but now creeping upwards). By comparison, poverty among those of working age is a much larger issue, up from under 4 million in 1990 to just under 6 million now, and still rising. Even more striking, workless households are the group most harshly affected by poverty. Over 70 per cent of them fall below the poverty line according to official DWP figures. The public express a high level of concern about poverty but seem happy to cut benefits for the group in the severest need. Even Labour voters are in two minds about whether the benefits unemployed people get should be cut further.
Where does this take us?
1. From a welfare state perspective, Ed is right to focus on the NHS. NHS spending is a top priority for most people, and there is no mileage in help for the poor of working age, despite their deteriorating position.
2. Most people are profoundly ignorant of basic facts about the level of need among different groups in their own society – but maybe we knew that anyway.
3. Any programme to tackle poverty and advance social equality must be based on universal benefits and programmes: child benefits, school meals for all, rent control, decent wages and stronger employment rights. Means-tested benefits directed specifically at the poor stand little chance of gaining high public support.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Peter Taylor-Gooby is Research Professor of Social Policy at the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. He chaired the British Academy New Paradigms in Public Policy Programme (2010/2011) and is Chair of the REF Social Work and Social Policy and Administration panel 2011-15, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Founding Academician at the Academy of Social Sciences and, previously, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Sociology and Social Policy Section.