BSA 40: Poverty

How have attitudes to welfare changed over the past decade?
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  • Authors:
    Ben Baumberg Geiger (King’s College London)
    Robert de Vries (University of Kent)
    Tom O’Grady (University College London)
    Kate Summers (London School of Economics and Political Science)
  • Publishing date:
    21 September 2023

The rise and fall of anti-welfare attitudes across four decades: politics, pensioners and poverty

Over the past four decades, there have been two periods of dramatic change in our attitudes to welfare; negative attitudes increased in the late 1990s and 2000s, while attitudes have softened since 2010. While the first period of change is well understood, being largely driven by changes in the views of Labour Party voters, this chapter focuses on the second period of change. How have attitudes to welfare changed over the past decade and can a softening of attitudes be attributed to politicians, the media, changing perceptions of poverty or to changes in Britain’s demographic make-up?

Falling anti-welfare attitudes

The perception that benefits recipients are undeserving has reduced substantially since 2010.

  • 19% agree that most people who get social security don’t really deserve any help, down from a high of 40% in 2005. Responses in 2019-22 are the lowest since the question was first asked in 1987.
  • 22% think that unemployment claimants are ‘fiddling in one way or another’, down from a high of 41% in 2004.
  • There has also been a rise in support for extra spending on benefits, but this rise has been more muted: 37% think that the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes, up from 29% in 2010.

Poverty: prevalence and definitions

People are increasingly likely to perceive poverty in Britain and their definitions of what constitutes poverty have become substantially more generous.

  • 69% think there is quite a lot of poverty in Britain, compared with 52% in 2006 – a change of 17 percentage points.
  • People are now more likely to think that poverty has risen in the past decade, compared with any point since the survey began; 78% say this, compared with 32% in 2006 (an increase of 46 percentage points).
  • 39% think someone is in poverty if they have enough to buy the things they need, but not the things most people take for granted. This figure stood at 29% in 2019 and 19% in 2013.

Explaining the fall in anti-welfare attitudes

The fall in anti-welfare attitudes over the past decades has occurred to a similar degree across all groups, including readers of different newspapers, and those of different ages and education.

  • The views of Labour and Conservative supporters have also softened largely in parallel. In 2005, 49% of Conservative and 35% of Labour Party supporters agreed that many benefits recipients “don’t really deserve any help”; these figures now stand at 19% and 11% (a gap of 8 percentage points).
  • The cause of the change in attitudes is difficult to discern and not due to one single factor. It appears to have been occasioned by a combination of several factors, including changing political discourses, more positive coverage in all newspapers, decreasing welfare generosity, and the perception that poverty has risen.