Tough on people in poverty – new report shows public’s hardening attitudes to welfare

A new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlights an enduring link between public attitudes to poverty and the state of the economy, but shows how this link to welfare is weakening.

The research - carried out by NatCen Social Research, explored public attitudes to poverty and welfare over the past three decades.

 It found that perceptions of and expectations for poverty levels became more pessimistic during the recessions of the 1990s and late 2000s, with a societal explanation for poverty gaining favour at the expense of an individual explanation.  

 During both recessions, there was an increase in the view that people live in need because they have been unlucky and people were less likely to say that poverty was caused by laziness or a lack of willpower. 

 However, the relationship between economic circumstances and attitudes to welfare (with attitudes traditionally becoming more supportive in times of recession) has weakened and is largely confined to support for recipients of unemployment benefits. 

 Much of this change occurred in the period immediately before and during Labour’s term in office and was concentrated among, though not confined, to Labour Party supporters. 

 The views of the oldest age group, those aged 65+, stand out. The oldest age group have consistently been less likely to view significant levels of poverty in Britain and to offer an individual, rather than a societal, explanation for the poverty that does exist. 

 However, they have become much more similar to other age groups on a number of issues; they no longer stand out in the extent to which they prioritise welfare spending and the view of the youngest and oldest regarding the extent welfare encourages dependency have converged.

 The report identified a trend in which the public has become increasingly likely to say that individual characteristics rather than societal issues cause poverty. For example:

  • Two-thirds (66%) of the public identify an explanation for child poverty that relates to the characteristics and behaviour of parents, compared to the 28% who say it is down to broader social issues. 
  • Fifteen per cent of the public in 1994 thought people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower, compared to 23% in 2010. Support for the view that people live in poverty because of injustice in society fell from 29% to 21% over the same time period.
  • These changes are most marked among Labour supporters: just 27% of supporters cite social injustice as the main cause, down from 41% in 1986; while those identifying laziness and willpower rose from 13% to 22%.
  • Labour supporters also increasingly hold the view that welfare recipients are undeserving (from 21% in 1987 to 31% in 2011) and that the welfare state encourages dependency – 46% say if benefits were not as generous, people would learn to stand on their own feet, up from 16% in 1987.

But there is considerable consensus among the public about high levels of child poverty in the UK. They endorse the importance of reducing child poverty and view this as a task for government.

  • In 2009, eighty-two per cent saw cutting child poverty as “very important”, with almost three-quarters (74%) saying this is a task for government.
  • The public think there are “significant” levels of child poverty today, but their expectations for progress in the future are negative - over half expect child poverty to increase in the next 10 years (51%).
  • The report contains figures from the most recent BSA survey as context on the hardening attitudes to welfare. This includes the view that more people believe that unemployed people could find a job if they wanted one, up from 27% in 1993 to 56% today. The same report highlighted the belief held by 54% that if welfare benefits were not so generous, people would learn to stand on their own feet (compared with 33% in 1987).

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of JRF, said: “The stark findings of this report highlight the increasingly tough stance people are taking against people in poverty. We appear to be tough on those experiencing poverty, but not tough on its causes.

“Reductions in pensioner and child poverty over the past 20 years show hardship is not inevitable. But the debate must go beyond a fixation with welfare and benefits tinkering – without jobs with proper wages and affordable housing and childcare, progress will hit the buffers.

“With living standards falling and welfare reform in sharp focus, the plight of the poorest households across the country will be a defining election issue. Increased poverty is a record no Government wants, so all parties need to match public support for tackling hardship with evidenced anti-poverty strategies.”

Liz Clery, Research Director, NatCen Social Research, said: “While public attitudes to poverty continue to behave in a consistent way in times of economic hardship, their relationship with attitudes to welfare has weakened, suggesting that people are less likely to see welfare spending as a means to addressing poverty.

 “In addition, the British public appear to have become more united in their attitudes to poverty and welfare over the past three decades. Differences in attitude that we might in the past have associated with older people and Labour Party supporters have become much less distinct.”