Bashing the poor is losing its appeal

Inequality, Poverty in the UK

For years, it has been axiomatic that the majority of the British public regarded benefit recipients as “skivers” who could get a job if they wanted. This perception seems to have survived the realities of the most prolonged economic down turn since the Great Depression, and the fact that most working-age people on benefits actually have jobs, albeit not ones that pay enough to survive.

For years this public view has shaped political attitudes to welfare reform. Politicians concerned with supporting benefits have trod wearily about how their policies will be received  by the public, while those seeking savings or reforms that make the system less generous have felt they had a public mandate to press faster and farther.

And not just to press faster and farther, but to do so accompanied by stigmatising language and often quite blatant attempts to whip up prejudice against very poor and vulnerable groups.

For a long time increasing numbers of people have felt that benefits for people out of work are too generous.

Ironically, this trend has accelerated during the recession, despite the fact that increasing numbers of people have, at some point or another been claiming out of work benefits, reaching its nadir at the 2011 Labour Party Conference with claims that the party was on the side of “hard working people” and the 2012 Conservative Party Conference with the now notorious “twitching curtains” speech from the Chancellor.

The long term trends had been obvious for many years. British people are less and less certain about the importance of the welfare state (as opposed to the NHS) as a cornerstone of our society. Certainly, according to what is seen as the definitive British Social Attitudes Survey, for a long time increasing numbers of people have felt that benefits for people out of work are too generous.

However, there are now signs that public attitudes are changing, and quite markedly. The numbers of people who said benefits were too high and discouraged people finding work fell a staggering 11%,

Stigmatising those struggling to get by may no longer be the easy win for politicians and journalists that it has seemed for a while.

from 62% to 51% in a single year. The same survey also saw an increase in the numbers of people supporting more spending on unemployment benefits.

This of course is in the year that foodbank users topped half a million, and stories of austerity and hardship have become a normal part of public discussion. What has now happened is that every day discussions are, unsurprisingly, permeating into public attitudes. More significantly, it suggests that stigmatising those struggling to get by may no longer be the easy win for politicians and journalists that it has
seemed for a while.

The “skivers and strivers” narrative has always been divisive and stigmatising, and never justifiable. Now, it also looks like it is out of touch with public opinion. I hope we continue seeing signs that society is, after all, more tolerant and more supportive than we expected.

Author: Chris Johnes
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.