Qualified solidarity amongst first-time pandemic claimants
Much has been made of the capacity for Covid-19 to instigate a change in public attitudes towards “welfare”. In his postgraduate research with first-time Universal Credit claimants, Jonny Ross-Tatam finds that pandemic claimants draw familiar distinctions between “deserving” and “undeserving” recipients of social security that centre on control, choice and identity – despite the extraordinary events of the pandemic.
A number of commentators and academics expressed hope that Covid-19 would significantly increase public solidarity towards social security claimants and build widespread public support for a more generous social security system in the UK. But a recent report – ‘Solidarity in Crisis? Trends in attitudes to benefits during Covid-19’ – casts doubt on this, suggesting that these hopes of greater public solidarity towards benefit claimants were over-optimistic. It found that public attitudes have not significantly become more pro-welfare during the pandemic, in part due to ‘Covid exceptionalism’. According to this report, the level of public solidarity directed towards pandemic claimants is higher, as they are perceived as less ‘blameworthy’ than pre-pandemic claimants. But do pandemic claimants share this Covid exceptionalism?
My research explores the welfare attitudes of pandemic claimants – specifically, those who claimed Universal Credit (UC) for the first time during Covid-19. Through in-depth interviews with 18 participants my study found that becoming a first-time UC claimant during Covid-19 generally increased support for more generous benefit payments, increased recognition of the importance of a welfare system and increased the perception that UC claimants were ‘deserving’ of support. Welfare attitudes prior to becoming a UC claimant mattered. The experience generally challenged anti-welfare sentiment, while reinforcing and strengthening pro-welfare views.
Perceptions of the ‘deservingness’ of benefit claimants are a crucial determinant for attitudes on how generous those benefits should be. More than just being about self-interest, I found that becoming a first-time pandemic claimant changed attitudes to benefits, in part, because it changed perceptions of how ‘deserving’ claimants were, particularly for those who previously held anti-welfare views.
“Before I was on it and I was working, I used to just think people were always moaning about benefits not being enough. But then once I've had to live on them, then I can see that it's actually not enough to live on…. I hadn’t realised that there are many people claiming who are like me and are just unfortunate not to be working…so I think it should be more now, yeah.”
Stacey, 38, Female
Study participants who previously held more anti-welfare views described how their direct experience of the benefits system changed their perceptions of claimants towards viewing them as generally deserving of support. However, this solidarity among first-time pandemic claimants was often qualified. Their solidarity extended to a majority of ‘deserving’ claimants whom they perceived to be, like them, claiming due to circumstances beyond their control. But did not extend to a ‘minority’ of ‘underserving’ claimants who were perceived as claiming through choice and laziness.
“You're always going to have an undeserving minority that are just choosing to scrounge and not work for whatever reason. But the majority of people are those who are claiming because of unfortunate things happening and through no fault of their own they suddenly go from having a job to suddenly not having one.”
Elizabeth, 49, Female
The importance of perceived control – or blameworthiness – is highlighted in the literature as a key criterion for judging the deservingness of claimants. Another key criterion is ‘identity’ – the extent to which claimants are perceived as being ‘one of us’. In my study, perceived control and identity generally came together for first-time pandemic claimants. They identified and empathised with claimants who were perceived as not being to blame for their situation. They identified and empathised with claimants they perceived as being ‘like them’ (regardless of whether they were “pandemic” or “non-pandemic”), who were deserving because they were claiming due to circumstances beyond their control.
“My first thought was like 90% of them were druggies, alcoholics, lowlife people that didn't deserve benefits. I thought that my taxes were going to people not deserving of it, who were choosing to sit around on benefits, because I was stereotyping, watching on TV and looking at the newspapers. And then suddenly, I’m on benefits myself. Now, I’ve realised that the majority of people on it [UC] are like me, who genuinely don't want to be on it, but need it because of whatever state their life is in.”
Gareth, 51, Male
The WASD report found that the public viewed pandemic claimants as more deserving than non-pandemic claimants. But my study did not find that first-time pandemic claimants shared this view. They viewed those who were claiming due to circumstances beyond their control, as deserving, regardless of whether or not they were claiming during the pandemic. While participants acknowledged the particularly unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic, their experience appeared to increase their sense that unfortunate circumstances, like losing a job, could happen to anyone, at any time.
“But why am I more deserving than someone who lost their job two years ago? I'm not. You know, stuff like this can happen to anybody, not just in the pandemic, and for most people it's for reasons beyond their control…those choosing to scrounge are few and far between.”
Emily, 30, Female
So what explains this difference?
It is feasible that the Covid exceptionalism of the public – that pandemic claimants are more deserving than non-pandemic claimants – is not shared by pandemic claimants themselves. Moreover, it is possible that the solidarity shown by the first-time pandemic claimants in this study towards other claimants – as long as they are claiming due to circumstances beyond their control – will not endure beyond the pandemic. Only time will tell how welfare attitudes of the public and claimants will change or stabilise in the coming years.