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".

New Statesman

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.