Attitudes to benefits
Solidarity in a crisis? Trends in attitudes to benefits during COVID-19
There were good reasons to think COVID-19 would increase public support for welfare: it was a time of apparent increased solidarity in the face of a collective crisis; of clearly ‘deserving’ claimants; and of increases in direct experiences of the benefits system. And yet, the limited evidence collected so far suggests that attitudes have not changed.
In this report, we explain this puzzle in the UK, using two datasets which are uniquely suited to the challenge: (i) bimonthly data collected by YouGov from 2019-2021, which provides comparable, high-resolution information on attitude changes across the pandemic; and (ii) a nationally representative survey we conducted as part of the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project in June 2021, which explored COVID-19-related attitudes in unique detail.
We found that COVID-19 prompted little change in public welfare attitudes. Attitudes did become slightly more generous during the first wave of the pandemic, only to rebound quickly in the Summer of 2020. The second COVID wave prompted another small increase in generosity. However, this appears unlikely to have endured.
Overall, comparing May 2021 with the pre-pandemic period, the public were less anti-welfare than before – but only slightly. The extent of the overall change from pre-pandemic to June 2021 differs between measures (from six percentage points for whether people out of work get too much support; to no change in whether benefit conditions are strict enough), and is stronger for Conservative voters than Labour voters. In the context of a considerable softening in attitudes 2013-19, however, all of the pandemic-associated changes are small.
There are two possible explanations for this muted change: firstly, that the pandemic has not meaningfully changed attitudes; and second, that attitudes have changed, but in ways which bracket COVID claimants away from pre-pandemic claimants, which we term ‘COVID exceptionalism’.
In our our novel survey of welfare attitudes conducted in June 2021, we found that:
Half of Britons (50.6%) think that COVID-19 claimants are more likely than pre-pandemic claimants to be deserving (with only a small minority saying that COVID-19 claimants are less likely to be deserving);
People are more than twice as likely to say that pre-pandemic claimants (vs. COVID-19 claimants) were to blame for being unable to find a job, and more than three times as likely to say that pre-pandemic claimants were to blame for losing their jobs.
When asked about a hypothetical claimant, people were nearly twice as likely to say that a pre-pandemic claimant (vs. a COVID-19 claimant) was at least a little to blame for being out of work.
In other words, we consistently found that the public believes COVID-19 claimants to be considerably more deserving of benefits than pre-pandemic claimants. (We did not find that pre-pandemic claimants were viewed harshly: these claimants were viewed quite sympathetically, and COVID claimants simply more so).
We also asked people to describe in free text the main differences between people claiming before vs. during COVID-19. We analysed these responses using Structural Topic Models. These results show that COVID claimants were generally identified as the unfortunate victims of a situation beyond their control, while pre-COVID claimants were much more likely to be labelled by respondents as potential ‘scroungers’. It is also worth noting, however, that many respondents focused on the broader impact of the pandemic at a more abstract level, or on the more human cost of the economic disruption on the living standards of both existing and new claimants alike.
These results pose a puzzle: why did a large influx of claimants seen as ‘more deserving’ fail to produce a correspondingly large increase in welfare generosity? The reason seems to be that general welfare attitudes are much more closely tied to perceptions of pre-pandemic claimants than to perceptions of COVID-19 claimants – that is, we find support for ‘COVID exceptionalism’. COVID-19 claimants are considered to be categorically different from ‘conventional’ claimants, and therefore welfare attitudes are to some extent insulated from sympathetic perceptions of this new breed of claimant.
It would be easy to conclude that, despite COVID-19, the public has little appetite for a more generous welfare system – but this would be wrong. Before the pandemic, attitudes had become more pro-welfare than the UK has seen in 20-30 years. Furthermore, if universal increases in welfare generosity are framed as specifically COVID-related (such as the £20 uplift in Universal Credit), support for increasing benefits in general is higher still. Rather than COVID-19 leading to an automatic transformation of attitudes, we can instead see it as offering discursive opportunities for a more generous benefit system, which political actors may choose to exploit or to counter, and whose resonance will depend on wider contextual factors. As an expert roundtable in June 2020 noted, “There is nothing inevitable about how the welfare state will be reshaped post-crisis… Political control matters” (Burchardt, 2020). The impact of COVID-19 on welfare attitudes and generosity is therefore all to play for.
The full report is available here. A recording of our report launch event is available here. The slides from the talk are available for both Rob de Vries & Ben Geiger's presentation (on the report) and Kate Summer's presentation (on the initial qualitative results).