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Public Attitudes to Poverty, Inequality and Welfare in Scotland and Britain

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5. Scottish And British Attitudes To Welfare Recipients

5.1. As well as asking about support for various types of welfare benefits, attitudinal research collects information on perceptions of welfare recipients' attitudes and behaviours.

5.2. The BSA found that in 2013 negative perceptions of welfare recipients were held by many British respondents, as can be seen in Figure 8 below. The majority (54%) believed that most unemployed people in their area could find a job if they wanted one, while a third believed that 'most people on the dole are fiddling' (33%) and that 'many people who get social security don't really deserve any help' (33%). Over three quarters (77%) agreed that 'large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits'.

Figure 8 - Percentage agreement with statements about welfare recipients, 2013

Percentage agreement with statements about welfare recipients

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey

5.3. The experience of recession has some impact on the belief that people could find a job if they really wanted one, as shown in Figure 9 below. Periods of recession are marked in grey on the chart. In the BSA, in 1989 over half (52%) thought that most people could find a job if they really wanted one, but this fell to 38% in 1991 (during recession) and 27% in 1993 (after recession). At the start of the recession in 2008, 68% believed that most people could find a job. By 2009 this had fallen to just over half (55%) and remained at this level in 2010 and 2011, dropping to 54% in 2012 and 2013.

Figure 9 - Percentage agreeing that 'Around here most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one', 1987 - 2013

Percentage agreement with statements about welfare recipients

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey

5.4. Attitudes towards those claiming unemployment benefits hardened in 2013, but softened slightly in 2014. In 2014, in Scotland, 31% of people thought that benefits for unemployed people were too low and caused hardship, whilst 43% felt that benefit levels were too high and discouraged unemployed people from finding jobs. This is a change from 2013, which saw a hardening of attitudes towards those receiving unemployment benefits, with 26% of respondents thinking that they were too low and caused hardship, the lowest level since devolution, and 52% feeling that they were too high and discouraged them from finding jobs, the highest level since devolution. Responses are now more in line with 2010 levels, when 30% felt that benefits were too low and 43% too high, indicating a slight softening in attitudes towards unemployed people following a hardening.

5.5. Despite these negative perceptions of welfare recipients, British findings from 2012 showed that nearly half (47%) agreed that cutting benefits would damage too many people's lives, an increase of five percentage points from 2011.

5.6. BSA respondents were more likely in 2013 than in previous years to think that benefits for a single unemployed person were enough to live on. A question which the BSA occasionally asks (asked in 1994, 2000 and 2013) relates to a 25 year old woman living alone whose only income comes from state benefits. Respondents are asked if they think she has enough to live on. The question is then asked again, but this time including the amount of income the woman has after rent (£72 a week in 2013).

5.7. In 2013, without knowing the actual amount of benefit received, 44% felt that it was not enough to live on and 44% thought it was enough to live on. After being given a figure for the actual amount of benefit the woman would be entitled to, respondents became more understanding: 56% thought that it wouldn't be enough to live on, while 42% said that it would be enough.

5.8. Over time, there has been a hardening of attitudes towards people living on state benefits, as can be seen in Figure 10, which shows a reduction in the proportion answering that the benefits available are not enough to live on. In 1994, 70% thought that the benefits available weren't enough to live on (which rose to 71% after finding out the amount of benefit), which reduced to 56% in 2000 (rising to 68% after finding out the amount of the benefit). Over this period, the corresponding number believing that benefit levels are enough to live on has increased.

Figure 10 - Perception that state benefits for a 25 year old woman living alone are not enough to live on, 1994-2013

Perception that state benefits for a 25 year old woman living alone are not enough to live on

Source: British Social Attitudes Survey

5.9. One of the BSA questions asks people the extent to which they agree that 'if welfare benefits weren't so generous, people would learn to stand on their own two feet'. Agreement with this statement has increased over time, with over half (54%) believing it in 2011, compared to 40% in 2000.

5.10. In Scotland in 2013, the SSA found that a large majority of respondents agreed that people falsely claim benefits. Seventy five percent of people agreed that 'large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits'.

5.11. In a British survey poll carried out in 2012 as part of a study on benefits stigma individuals were asked to estimate what percentage of people claiming out-of-work benefits deliberately deceived the government to claim benefits they would not be entitled to if they told the truth. On average, people thought that 25% of claims were fraudulent. This compares to DWP figures, which estimate that 2% of claims are fraudulent. In the survey, 14% of people thought that more than half of all people claiming benefits were committing fraud.

5.12. It is also worth noting that the same as the percentage of SSA respondents as who thought large numbers claimed falsely, 75%, agreed that 'large numbers of people who are eligible for benefits these days fail to claim them'.

5.13. The British 2012 survey on stigma also asked directly about stigma by asking people to indicate to what extent people should feel ashamed to be claiming a range of benefits: in-work tax credits, Jobseeker's Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support for single parents; and Housing Benefit. Between 21 and 24%, depending on benefit, thought that people should feel somewhat ashamed, while between 8 and 10% felt people should feel very ashamed.[6]

5.14. People were also asked to give their views on the extent to which people in general felt that benefit claimants should feel ashamed. This showed a higher perceived level of stigma, with between 35 and 37% saying that people thought claimants should be somewhat ashamed, and between 11 and 13% saying people thought claimants should be very ashamed.