Hardening of public attitudes on poverty

People are increasingly likely to believe poverty is caused by individuals' characteristics – such as laziness or lack of will power – rather than social factors, according to a new study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The report is based on an analysis of British Social Attitudes survey data between 1983 and 2011, carried out by NatCen Social Research.

Key findings

  • Attitudes to, and expectations for, poverty levels are closely linked to economic circumstances and bear little relation to the targets and policies of political parties in power. However, changes in perceptions of causality reflect shifts over time in governmental approaches in this area.
  • Current attitudes and expectations for child poverty are at odds with the targets of successive governments: but public perceptions of its causes favour individualistic over societal explanations, reflecting the current direction of coalition policy.
  • Although expectations for future levels of poverty are far from optimistic, support for welfare spending, which can be regarded as one potential solution, is at a historical low and appears to be moving in line with political policy and rhetoric, rather than economic circumstances.
  • Where attitudes to the welfare state and welfare recipients have changed over time, they have become more negative, with change being particularly pronounced among Labour Party supporters and young people.

Liz Clery, Research Director at NatCen, commented: 'While public attitudes to poverty continue to behave in a consistent way in times of economic hardship, their relationship with attitudes to welfare has weakened, suggesting that people are less likely to see welfare spending as a means to addressing poverty. In addition, the British public appear to have become more united in their attitudes to poverty and welfare over the past three decades. Differences in attitude that we might in the past have associated with older people and Labour Party supporters have become much less distinct'.

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of JRF, added: 'The stark findings of this report highlight the increasingly tough stance people are taking against people in poverty. We appear to be tough on those experiencing poverty, but not tough on its causes. Reductions in pensioner and child poverty over the past 20 years show hardship is not inevitable. But the debate must go beyond a fixation with welfare and benefits tinkering – without jobs with proper wages and affordable housing and childcare, progress will hit the buffers'.

: Elizabeth Clery, Lucy Lee and Sarah Kunz, Public Attitudes to Poverty and Welfare, 1983–2011: Analysis Using British Social Attitudes Data, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
LinksReport | Summary | JRF press release | Daily Mail report | Guardian report | Telegraph report 


Publication date: 
May 14 2013