Coverage of the latest edition of the British Social Attitudes survey has focused on the headline that Britons seem to have become much harder in their attitudes towards poverty, its potential solutions and the people suffering from it. This is based on the finding, for example, that the public is now less sympathetic towards benefit claimants than at the start of the 1990s. In 1991, 58 per cent thought the government should spend more on benefits but by last year this had more than halved to 27 per cent (bearing in mind that benefit spending is an imperfect indicator of poverty alleviation).
This led much of the press coverage to conclude that we have become 'more Thatcherite now than in the 1980s'. This seems however to be based on a misperception of how public attitudes alter, react and intertwine with political changes. The evidence suggests that the public were generally more sympathetic towards poverty alleviation by the end of the last Conservative Government than during the Labour Government. So in Thatcher's era, public support for addressing poverty grew as actual levels of poverty increased during the 1980s. Then, during the last Labour Government, the relatively high profile given to more welfare spending and tackling poverty, especially among parents, may have given the public the impression that more – even too much – was being done and that poverty alleviation had gone far enough.
As well as views on benefit spending and poverty, the report also contains in-depth analysis of attitudes towards income inequality. There are some fascinating insights. Less than one in ten of those in the top quarter of earners think of themselves as actually being on a high income – in fact, the same proportion think of themselves of having a low income. Our own research confirms that most people place themselves in the 'middle' of the income spectrum, regardless of earnings. Issues to do with the 'fairness' of redistribution and taxation need to engage with the reality of how people see themselves in relation to others.A large majority (nearly 8 in 10) think the gap between those on high and low incomes in Britain is too large and this worry has increased slightly since the mid-2000s. People's own earnings seem to drive their views but education, economic status, social class and age do not have much effect. Underlying attitudes towards why people are poor or rich are more important and there is support for ensuring more equality of opportunity as well as a view that taxes are too high for people on low incomes. Our research also found that most people strongly supported progressive tax and benefit system and were supportive of targeted interventions to improve life chances for the disadvantaged, when presented with evidence about unequal life chances.
So, although this perceived 'hardening' of attitudes towards those on benefits may require the anti-poverty movement to work harder to shift perceptions, those concerned with addressing high levels of poverty and inequality must use this evidence to work, at least initially, with the grain of public opinion in order to have a positive impact.