Facts and fiction on welfare

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Popular attitudes towards spending on welfare claimants are often based on ignorance and prejudice, fed by politicians and the media 

With public spending under such close scrutiny, it’s no surprise that social security, with a total budget of over £200bn – which accounts for around 29 per cent of government expenditure – is a hot topical issue.

But the rising number of column inches dedicated to welfare spending has not improved the quality of debate. In fact, as new TUC-commissioned You Gov polling dramatically shows, public attitudes on social security are largely based on fiction.

People have fallen for the gross media stereotypes on welfare spending; a vast over-estimation of the amount spent on unemployed people, levels of benefit fraud, how much people receive and whether they are incentivised to work.

On average, people thought that around two fifths of the entire welfare budget was spent on unemployed people. In fact, only three per cent of expenditure is accounted for by Jobseeker’s Allowance, while over 50 per cent is spent on pensioners. JSA would have to be worth £1000 a week – rather than £71 for most adults – to cost £82 billion a year.

Widespread tabloid coverage of benefit fraud has also  led people to believe that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while the government’s own figure is only 0.7 per cent.

With public knowledge so out of step with reality, it’s no surprise that public support for out of work benefits is low.

The polling also shows that people can hold completely contradictory positions on benefit spending. While the public support the government’s plans to cap the uprating of benefits at one per cent,  63 per cent of those polled wanted benefits to link to wages, or prices, or both – precisely what the government are legislating against!

But while the extent of voter ignorance is rather depressing, the poll also demonstrates that when accurate information is provided, public attitudes shift.

Our initial polling showed clear majority support across everyone questioned (48 per cent to 32 per cent) for the one per cent uprating cap. But when respondents were told that the policy will reduce tax credit and benefit entitlements for low-paid workers, majority support turned into majority opposition (40 to 30 per cent).

Not everyone wants to improve their knowledge of social security, with the details appearing to confound many senior members of the government, let alone ordinary voters. But we should worry about the extent to which there are extreme inaccuracies in public knowledge, rather than just knowledge gaps.

Given the extent of public misunderstanding, and the tone of much media reporting, it also seems fair to deduce that there must be a link between public attitudes, press coverage and the political misinformation increasingly promoted by minsters and their advisers.

It is absolutely right that we should debate social security, and that there should be proper scrutiny of where a quarter of our national revenue is spent. But when DWP briefing to journalists includes suggesting, for example, that 90,000 severely disabled young people are unnecessarily claiming benefits, or that there are huge numbers of jobs for lazy unemployed people to take, it is unsurprising that attitudes are misinformed.

And although the problem has become worse under this government, it would be wrong to pretend that the last Labour government’s narrative on social security was significantly better.  Politicians from across the political spectrum need to inject some more honesty into the debate, and to base policy discussions on facts rather than perpetuating misleading fiction.

Nicola Smith is the TUC’s head of economics

4 comments on Facts and fiction on welfare

  1. David Cochrane says:

    An excellent piece and timely for those of us who despise this government’s attitude to the poor. The site of Osborne and Duncan-smith demonising poor and disabled people is sickening. I am reminded that when reactionary politicians get desperate they step up their attacks on minorities. Thus when the Nazi’s began to realise they were losing the war, they intensified the Holocaust. Also it is sickening to see the Lib-dems supporting the resurrection of the “underserving poor” policy which a previous liberal government reformed at the beginning of the 20th century. Of course this idea was enshrined in the 1834 poor law amendment act so is pre-victorian. The liberal reforms reflected the fact that this policy has always been fallacious as the victorians realised given that the great majority of people entering workhouses, were physically or mentally ill or simply to old to work. As for the benefits squeeze, this government is determined to make most people “equally miserable”. They have adopted the policy of “equal misery” to everyone apart from people like themselves.

  2. Denis Riddle says:

    Most people aren’t against helping genuinely unemployed people out, for a short while, until they can get back into work. But let’s face it the uk seems to be the benefits capital of the universe, people fly over loads of countries to get here and claim benefits, free health care, free housing and so forth. I don’t begrudge someone £71 per week for a short term, when they have contributed to the state but what about those with large families that can’t/won’t work because they can’t earn the same level of cash and benefits by working as they do by not working. Anyway, £71 per week isn’t the average benefit, it’s the minimum, what about housing benefits that are added to this etc?

    Ann Widdecombe appeared in a programme a while back, which amply illustrated the attitudes of many of those on the dole to work. A number of them refused jobs, which she found for them. Surely we need to encourage people to work and the best way to do this is by limiting benefits and certainly not by increasing them at a time when many workers have not had a pay rise in years. I welcome the current government’s measures to reduce benefits, it’s about time someone listened to those footing the bill rather than those receiving the benefits!

  3. dharminder dhaliwal says:

    Very informative piece of work nicola.

  4. stan says:

    The author is correct about the use of propaganda by the govt.
    The very concepts of deserving and undeserving poor are very fluid and bent by perspective and special interests. They are also a very dangerous stereotype which may well bite the the accusser as much as the the accused striver versus shirker.
    The only time that intelligent cuts should be applied, and these are not intelligent cuts just cuts for cuts sake. Is after the borders are closed to the many poor economic migrants from the eec and wider the world, which would be very unfortunate for them.
    There are just far too many very poor people in the world who even on the lowest wage or benefit are still better off here with health care and our civil society how ever low something being better than none.
    Being very poor they are also more likey to get means tested benefits than a .
    The incumbent poor here are expected to drop to a third world existance in a cold northern climate other wise. A real race to the bottom and the workhouse.
    The sick can not magically get better and the unemployed and imperfect can not create employment or a rising economy.
    Benefits including the 60% pension bill are very poor to many in real need.
    The reality is the changes will make many more oligarch millionaire service providers with out helping the need that still will be there. Poor private management is just as bad as bad public management.

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