In 2013, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that public attitudes towards welfare have “hardened.” Similarly, the British Social Attitudes Survey report concluded that public support for government spending on social security benefits has declined markedly over the last decade, and that people are also more sceptical about whether benefit recipients deserve the support they get. Seems that people forget that the majority of people claiming benefits have worked previously and paid for their own provision through the national insurance and tax systems.
However, the way questions in surveys are framed often influences the responses by introducing bias, which affects the validity and reliability of research findings.
Furthermore, simply adding detail, such as using examples that include real groups of people in survey questions may elicit a different set of responses. Re-humanising groups claiming benefits tends to prompt sympathetic responses. As it is, the current government and much of the media tend to dehumanise those claiming any form of welfare support quite purposefully.
Of course the media has and continues to play a major role in defining public perceptions about welfare, but the media are conveying what are ultimately political justification narratives for the Tory notion of an “efficient” small state and their aim to dismantle our post-war settlement.
We are constantly being told that the British public has swallowed the ‘scroungers and skivers’ rhetoric about benefit claimants, and is broadly in favour of welfare cuts. Any politician who opposes these cuts is widely portrayed as unrealistic and unelectable. But what if that is not true, and the public’s attitude is actually far less harsh than the Westminster bubble would have us believe?
A poll carried out by YouGov in the two days after the recent Budget makes interesting reading, with some valuable lessons, and encouragement, for all who oppose the welfare cuts.
When asked a rather leading question about benefit claimants in general, and the total amount spent on benefits, 45% of respondents agreed with the statement that benefits are ‘Too high – the amount of money people can claim in benefits is too much, it’s too expensive and unfair on taxpayers.”
So far, so Daily Mail. But when asked to think about specific groups of benefit claimants, i.e. to think of real people not statistics, attitudes changed significantly.
Listing different groups of benefit recipients, respondents were asked if too much money was spent on them, or not enough. For disabled people, 46% felt that too little was spent, whilst only 9% felt that too much was spent on them. 28% felt that the amount was about right.
The figures were roughly the same for people in work on low pay, and for pensioners who have only a state pension. The group which received the least sympathy was ‘better off retired people’, whilst the views on what people who are out of work receive was almost evenly split – there was certainly no majority for the view that they get too much.
Taking the cuts in general, 38% of people thought that benefit cuts had gone too far, whilst only 24% thought they had not gone far enough. So there is no real appetite for further cuts. We should also bear in mind that the poll was conducted on the two days immediately after the Budget, when the media was trumpeting George Osborne’s claims about a new National Living Wage. As people discover the reality, that this is no more than a small rise in the minimum wage and comes with a large cut to tax credits, it seems likely that the percentage who feel cuts have gone too far may rise significantly.
Those who responded to the survey were probably also not fully aware of the drastic cut to Employment and Support Allowance which will see people in the Work Related Activity Group (who aren’t fit for work) losing around £30 per week. If this is spelled out, it seems highly likely that based on this survey, a clear majority of the public would oppose it.
The poll should also provide food for thought to politicians who feel they have to constantly defer to the business community in order to be electable. Asked about how to address low pay, a clear majority of respondents wanted government to get tough with employers, choosing the statement, ‘It is better for government to use the law to force companies to pay low paid workers a better wage, even if this leads to higher unemployment.’
This poll should encourage all who are campaigning to defend the welfare state and oppose cuts to the incomes of the poorest people. Despite the hyperbolic headlines and the poverty porn, British people still want to see the poor, the disabled and the elderly guaranteed a decent standard of living. They may have absorbed some of the propaganda about ‘out of control’ welfare spending, but if we can show that to be false, and continue to highlight what benefit cuts mean in terms of real people rather than statistics, we should be able to build a groundswell of opinion in defence of the welfare state.
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone