Attitudes to benefit recipients

Respondents to British Social Attitudes are regularly asked whether they agree or disagree with the following three items, which measure the extent to which benefit recipients are seen as 'deserving' of government support:

Many people who get social security don't really deserve any help

Around here, most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one

Most people on the dole are fiddling in one way or another

Pullquote _Welfare _7

Looking at the results obtained between 1987 and 2011 for the first two measures, we see that a considerable section of the public clearly do view welfare recipients, and people receiving unemployment benefits in particular, as undeserving. More than a third (35 per cent) currently think that many getting social security "don't really deserve any help" - while the proportion has fluctuated between just above 20 per cent and 40 per cent over time. However, the most pervasive negative view is that "around here, most unemployed people could find a job if they wanted one". Support for this proposition was at its lowest around the time of the early-1990s recession, but rose steadily during much of Labour's time in office until around the start of the current economic downturn. The level of agreement has dropped since then from seven in ten to under six in ten (while only two in ten disagree). Yet this may still be considered a strikingly high level of scepticism given the growth in unemployment. A perception that most people on the dole are "fiddling" is also quite widespread and has more or less tracked the proportion who believe that many people receiving social security "don't really deserve any help"; in 2011, 37 per cent of the public believes that most people on the dole are "fiddling".

F_Welfare _1.4

Pullquote _Welfare _8It would be tempting to conclude from this that declining support for the government's role as a main provider of welfare, and for extra spending on benefits, is a direct consequence of the public's view that many social security recipients are undeserving. However, we have seen how negative perceptions of welfare recipients are a pretty constant strand in British public opinion - and also that, while they are more common than we might have expected in a recession, they have dipped below their peak levels. Could it be that the relatively low support for extra spending on benefits during the current recession reflects popular objections to the concept of welfare and the welfare state itself, as much as a view of benefit recipients as undeserving? This is the issue we next consider.

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  1. Data on the percentages of the UK labour force who were unemployed, using the harmonised ILO definition, were accessed using the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook Database, April 2012, available at:
  2. This question is one of eight items that contribute to the British Social Attitudes 'welfarism' scale, used to derive an overall measure of support for welfare. Further details about the welfare scale can be found in Technical details.
  3. Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows:

    NT_Welfare _1.5

  4. Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:

    NT_Welfare _1.6

  5. Bases for Table 1.7 are as follows:

    NT_Welfare _1.7