Public attitude to welfare state 'toughens' despite recession

Sep 17, 2012

Less sympathy for benefit recipients but more people want to see an increase in public spending

PUBLIC attitudes on welfare recipients are "toughening" despite the recession, according to a new study on British social attitudes.

Only 28 per cent of 3,300 people surveyed by NatCen Social Research wanted to see more spending on welfare - down from 35 per cent at the beginning of the recession in 2008, and from 58 per cent in 1991. Even the number of people prepared to see money spent on disability benefits has fallen.

Yet for the first time in nearly a decade, there was a rise in the number of people who think public spending and taxes should be increased. The proportion of people who want to see further public spending jumped from 31 per cent to 36 per cent between 2010 and 2011, after falling for nearly a decade from 63 per cent in 2002.

The majority - 55 per cent - said they would like to see spending levels remain the same.

The survey gives government an idea of how the public wants its money to be spent. More than two in three people chose health as their first or second priority for extra government spending, with education in second place.

Since the large majority of the coalition's cuts have yet to be made, this is likely to be the beginning of a shift back towards support for a larger state, says George Eaton in the New Statesman.

The authors of the report noted that after the last recession in the 1990s, people became more sympathetic towards the vulnerable – but they say "this hasn't happened this time".

Penny Young, NatCen chief executive, told the BBC: "The recession doesn't seem to be changing things; attitudes continue to harden."

The country that emerges from this report is "worried and wary", says Sarah Neville in the Financial Times. It is concerned by the impact of deep spending cuts on public services and has diminishing compassion even for the "deserving" poor, such as disabled or retired people.

On the plus side, Ian Dunt, writing on, says the results show "continued faith" in the ability and desirability of the state delivering services, despite the government's intention to hive off functions to charities and the private sector.

Julian Le Grand, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and an expert on Britain's welfare state, makes a similar point.

"For all their grumbles – and everyone complains about public services such as the NHS and education – most people's experience is rather good these days," he told the Financial Times. He added that the banking crisis had sped up "a bit of a switch away from 'public bad, private good' to 'public not so bad and private much worse'."

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