Popular attitudes towards spending on welfare claimants are often based on ignorance and prejudice, fed by politicians and the media
With public spending under such close scrutiny, it’s no surprise that social security, with a total budget of over £200bn - which accounts for around 29 per cent of government expenditure - is a hot topical issue.
But the rising number of column inches dedicated to welfare spending has not improved the quality of debate. In fact, as new TUC-commissioned You Gov polling dramatically shows, public attitudes on social security are largely based on fiction.
People have fallen for the gross media stereotypes on welfare spending; a vast over-estimation of the amount spent on unemployed people, levels of benefit fraud, how much people receive and whether they are incentivised to work.
On average, people thought that around two fifths of the entire welfare budget was spent on unemployed people. In fact, only three per cent of expenditure is accounted for by Jobseeker’s Allowance, while over 50 per cent is spent on pensioners. JSA would have to be worth £1000 a week – rather than £71 for most adults – to cost £82 billion a year.
Widespread tabloid coverage of benefit fraud has also led people to believe that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while the government’s own figure is only 0.7 per cent.
With public knowledge so out of step with reality, it’s no surprise that public support for out of work benefits is low.
The polling also shows that people can hold completely contradictory positions on benefit spending. While the public support the government’s plans to cap the uprating of benefits at one per cent, 63 per cent of those polled wanted benefits to link to wages, or prices, or both – precisely what the government are legislating against!
But while the extent of voter ignorance is rather depressing, the poll also demonstrates that when accurate information is provided, public attitudes shift.
Our initial polling showed clear majority support across everyone questioned (48 per cent to 32 per cent) for the one per cent uprating cap. But when respondents were told that the policy will reduce tax credit and benefit entitlements for low-paid workers, majority support turned into majority opposition (40 to 30 per cent).
Not everyone wants to improve their knowledge of social security, with the details appearing to confound many senior members of the government, let alone ordinary voters. But we should worry about the extent to which there are extreme inaccuracies in public knowledge, rather than just knowledge gaps.
Given the extent of public misunderstanding, and the tone of much media reporting, it also seems fair to deduce that there must be a link between public attitudes, press coverage and the political misinformation increasingly promoted by minsters and their advisers.
It is absolutely right that we should debate social security, and that there should be proper scrutiny of where a quarter of our national revenue is spent. But when DWP briefing to journalists includes suggesting, for example, that 90,000 severely disabled young people are unnecessarily claiming benefits, or that there are huge numbers of jobs for lazy unemployed people to take, it is unsurprising that attitudes are misinformed.
And although the problem has become worse under this government, it would be wrong to pretend that the last Labour government’s narrative on social security was significantly better. Politicians from across the political spectrum need to inject some more honesty into the debate, and to base policy discussions on facts rather than perpetuating misleading fiction.
Nicola Smith is the TUC's head of economics