There is little doubt that when it comes to the question of welfare the public aren’t exactly flag waving supporters. In fact, it’s fair to say, that the current debate is so negative the previous government felt empowered to freely slash welfare spending safe in the knowledge that to do so is widely, even a little wildly, popular; they quite legitimately said they were simply doing what voters wanted.
Even with new DWP supremo, Damian Green, striking a softer tone to the former Chancellor, the government’s overall attitude to welfare hasn’t changed an awful lot. While we wouldn’t disagree that work should always pay more than benefits, this soundbite ignores some of the harsher realities of life, like the increasing trend towards low paid, insecure jobs or the sheer lack of opportunities to find work in towns and cities left behind by deindustrialisation.
Over the last six years or so we’ve been working hard to address some of the harsher impacts of benefit cuts on our clients. Not only have our advice services assisted thousands of people but our elite level influencing and policy work has sought to soften some of the sharper edges of the government’s reform agenda.
But despite all of this excellent work the centre-right press continues to highlight, through lurid headlines, the extreme cases of those they believe are undeserving of support. This then goes on to fan the flames of public discontent around a system they believe isn’t working – which then goes on to embolden the government to carry out their reforms.
That’s why we are seeking to turn the great tide of public opinion on benefits. We know this will be long road and we won’t shift attitudes overnight, after all we’re going against generation’s worth of hostility, but we feel we need to be helping to shape the debate to establish the groundwork for a better future for the benefit system.
Let’s be clear here, there has never been a golden age when it comes to public attitudes to social security. Studies going right back to the birth of Britain’s welfare state in 1948 show that people have always felt that benefits go to the ‘undeserving’. And while being fully signed up to the National Health Service, people have been ambivalent at best and downright hostile at worst to the wider elements of the benefits system.
Down the years the type of person deemed undeserving has shifted as moral tastes have changed – but society has persistently carved out an underserving ‘other’. At various times, single mothers, divorced women, men with drinking problems, the so called workshy and immigrants have all been accused of taking advantage of a system they shouldn’t be entitled to.
Of course the reality is very different. There is much less actual fraud than people perceive and the population is not divided into those who take and those who contribute. In fact a 2015 IFS study showed that nine out of 10 Britons pay more in taxes than they receive in social security over their adult lives. In fact just 7% of adults receive more in benefits than they pay in.
But heading the audience off by highlighting ‘the truth’ through a myth busting campaign simply wouldn’t work. In fact all our evidence shows it could make things worse as people dig their heels in to defend their perceived truth….but that’s a blog for another time.
And in many cases people do have legitimate concerns. The system can be fiendishly difficult to negotiate and many people’s perception is based on their experience of having to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get what they feel they should be entitled to.
We believe the system needs to be made stronger in places but we know this isn’t going to happen unless we win the public over in the first place.
One bright spot from which we can take encouragement is that people believe in the principle of welfare. And while this contrasts with their more hostile view of who welfare should go to it gives us something positive to build from.
This cognitive dissonance was summed up in a recent focus group I attended. Participants, asked to think of a word that summed up welfare to them, started off positively with words like ‘support’ and ‘help’ but as soon as one person said ‘abuse’ it immediately gave everyone permission to talk about all the negative associations they had.
So the scale of our task is clear and we’re clearly swimming against the current of public opinion. But this campaign is testament to Shelter’s ambition to take on some of the bigger issues of the day and try to shape a fairer future for all.
We’ll be keeping the Shelter blog updated with news on how the campaign’s progressing. So keep an eye out for more news in the coming months.