Public attitudes to benefits are hardening

Public support for government spending on social security benefits has declined markedly over the last decade, according to the annual British Social Attitudes Survey report. People are also more sceptical about whether benefit recipients deserve the help they get.

The British Social Attitudes Survey has been conducted each year since 1983. The 2011 survey involved a representative, random sample of over 3,000 adults.

Key points

  • In 2001, 88 per cent agreed the government should be mainly responsible for ensuring unemployed people have enough to live on: but only 59 per cent think this now, according to the latest survey.
  • In 1991, 26 per cent agreed that if benefits were less generous people would 'stand on their own two feet'. By 2007 this figure had doubled to 52 per cent, and it now stands at 54 per cent.
  • In 1991, nearly six in ten (58 per cent) wanted to see more spending on welfare benefits. By the onset of recession in 2008 this had fallen to 35 per cent. Only three in ten (28 per cent) now want higher benefits spending.
  • The previous recession of the early 1990s saw an increase in concern that benefit levels were too low and caused hardship, peaking at 55 per cent in 1993. In contrast, at the onset of recession in 2008, just 21 per cent thought this – falling further to only 19 per cent in 2011.
  • Support for welfare spending has fallen even for groups traditionally seen as the most 'deserving', and this fall has not been negated by the onset of latest recession. In 1998, three quarters (74 per cent) wanted to see more spending on benefits for disabled people, compared with 63 per cent in 2008 and just 53 per cent in 2011.

The author says these trends are not just a cyclical response to the ups and downs of economic activity: they suggest a 'fundamental long-term change' in attitudes towards welfare and benefit recipients.

Source: Elizabeth Clery, 'Are tough times affecting attitudes to welfare?' (in Alison Park, Elizabeth Clery John Curtice, Miranda Phillips and David Utting (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 29th Report), National Centre for Social Research
Links: Report | NatCen press release | Guardian report | Telegraph report