The bitter irony of the hardening attitudes towards 'benefit scroungers' #BSA29

17th Sep 2012

Attitudes of the British people are hardening towards benefits and those claiming them. What's the truth about 'scroungers'?

Attitudes of the British people are hardening towards benefits and those claiming it. That's the message from this year’s British Social Attitudes Survey.

It's hard to deny this is the case looking at the chart below.

This shows the trend going back to the early eighties for the percentage of the public who say either (a) that benefits are too low and cause hardship or (b) that they are too high and discourage work. Although there is a lot of 'noise' in the two trends, it's fairly clear that there are two halves to the story.

From 1983 up to the late-nineties, the 'causes hardship' group were around 50% compared with about 30% in the 'discourages work' camp. About the time Tony Blair came into office, these started to diverge. This is especially so from 2003 onwards as Labour's welfare changes started to kick in. The most recent survey, with data for 2011, shows 60% of people now believe that benefits are so generous they discourage job-seeking, three times the rate of those thinking they cause hardship.

But how does this compare to what benefit levels actually are? This does highlight the problem with the question – it depends who you are talking about. Over the period of divergence, benefits for children and pensioners (though it’s unlikely that the latter are the benefit recipients who respondents have in mind) have increased but benefits for working-age adults (e.g. JSA) have slipped behind.

The hardening of attitudes towards benefit claimants has arisen in part from a perceived 'success' of Labour policy in reducing out-of-work family poverty. The bitter irony is that childless, unemployed adults now – likely to be at the forefront of public ire about 'scroungers' – are the one group who have become persistently worse off over the last 30 years.