In recent years public attitudes to welfare in Britain have appeared to stand at a crossroads. On the one hand, looking at the direction taken by policies under successive governments - both Labour and the Coalition - we might expect opinion to be growing less sympathetic to benefit recipients and less supportive of the government's continued role in funding welfare. On the other, acknowledging the prolonged economic crisis and trends during previous recessions, we might expect attitudes to have grown more sympathetic to welfare and benefit recipients as unemployment increased.
What our data clearly show is that, while attitudes to different aspects of welfare are behaving in a far from uniform way, they are generally moving in line with the current direction of government policy, rather than responding as they have previously to the onset of recession. We see that the public is becoming less supportive of the government taking a leading role in providing welfare to the unemployed, and even to the elderly in retirement. There is less enthusiasm about public spending on all types of benefits and an increasing belief that the welfare system encourages dependence.
We have argued that this shift of opinion was nurtured by a tougher stance towards welfare under the previous Labour government. It can also be read as evidence that the coalition government's radical Welfare Reform Act is in tune with public opinion, chiming as it does with so many changing attitudes and assumptions. However, we have also seen how public attitudes to welfare are not moving in the same direction or at the same rate in all demographic groups. Indeed, the fact that these divisions run along socio-economic lines should strike a warning note. Advantaged groups who seem best-placed to weather the recession, and are least likely to rely on welfare if they do fall on hard times, are becoming markedly less supportive of welfare in principle and in practice. So while public opinion overall is moving in the same direction as the current welfare reforms and their underpinning assumptions, there is by no means a consensus - with views on some issues being more divided than they were a decade ago. As the economic crisis continues to run its course, we may yet see a polarisation of opinion that places real obstacles in the way of government, as it pursues the prolonged task of implementing its reforms.
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- 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: www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2012/01/weodata/index.aspx
- 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.
- Bases for Table 1.5 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 1.6 are as follows:
- Bases for Table 1.7 are as follows: