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Public opinion on benefits is not a one-way street

Voters believe the welfare system is too generous but also remain committed to fairness and to tackling "causes not symptoms".

Last night’s Channel 4 debate on welfare, which followed the final episode of Benefits Street was predictably feisty. Welfare and benefits are fairly hot topics, drawing opinions which come with plenty of baggage on a range of issues including self-responsibility and the role of the state.

During the debate some contributors talked about the need to understand "real" opinion beyond the audience of James Turner Street residents, programme makers, commentators and politicians. As well as (mis)representation, there was also much talk about (mis)perceptions.

These are clearly important factors driving the commissioning of the series in the first place as well as subsequent reaction to it. They also provide the backdrop to one of the most reformist periods in the history of our benefits system. That history has seen changing attitudes but it is worth remembering that there has never been universal support for the modern welfare state. In a survey commissioned by the BBC in 1956, two in five believed that the British way of life was deteriorating and the most common reason given was "too much welfare and care".

Today, behind every ten doors we knock on, we find seven Britons who think the benefits system is not working effectively, and three times as many who consider benefits too generous than think the opposite. There is a sense that there is insufficient link between paying in and getting out, and that some claimants are more deserving than others. Little wonder that we have found high levels of public support – by more than five to one – for the £26,000 household cap on benefits.

But attitudes are not all one-way. For example, there are equally strongly held views that it is important to have a benefits system to provide a safety net for anyone who needs it, and also evidence of a preference for reform tackling causes, not symptoms. The British are also sensitive to fairness; so, just as context shapes policy on benefits, the impact of policy and its perceived fairness might itself shape that context. Reflecting this, while support for the benefit cap looks set to endure, public opinion on the "bedroom tax" is more nuanced and less predictable.

Last year, the British Social Attitudes Survey found a "softening of attitudes" towards unemployment and welfare payments. At a time when the economy has started to improve, our monthly Issues Index – measuring what the public consider to be "the most important/among the most important issues facing the country" – has detected a rise in the salience of "poverty/inequality".

Finally, it is worth considering what the public understand about these issues. Ipsos MORI surveys have shown this to be fairly shallow in respect of benefits and welfare. Related to this, a study of housing benefit last year concluded that "facts in and of themselves will not change hearts and minds, but stories and emotions do". Given this, it is clear why Benefits Street has hit such a nerve.

Ben Marshall is a research director at Ipsos MORI.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear