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My brother’s keeper? Not any more

21 September 2012

THE 29th British Social Attitudes (BSA) report, released this week, plots a draining away of sympathy for the disadvantaged. In earlier recessions, it was widely acknowledged to be the job of the state to support those who were put out of work. There has been a significant change. In 2001, 88 per cent of those surveyed agreed that the Government should be largely responsible for "ensuring that people have enough to live on if they become unemployed". In 2011, that figure had dropped to 59 per cent.

This hardness of heart extends to other disadvantaged groups. Respondents were asked if they wanted to see higher benefits for various categories. The percentage dropped in each: unemployed people (from 22% in 2002 to 15% in 2011), disabled people who cannot work (72% to 53%), parents on low incomes (71% to 58%), single parents (40% to 29%), retired people (74% to 57%), and full-time carers (84% to 75%). The deserving poor seem to have disappeared from people's thinking. Respondents in 2011 believed that 37 per cent of those on the dole were "fiddling". The 2012 official figure for fraud and overpayments combined - for the whole of the benefits system - is two per cent. (It is reasonable to suppose that overpayments match the 0.8 per cent that was underpaid, putting the fraud figure at 1.2 per cent.)

A key political question is whether these shifting attitudes are driving public policy or being driven by it. The data are analysed in the BSA report by Elizabeth Clery, who notes: "Existing evidence from British Social Attitudes surveys shows how the supporters of particular political parties, when they have come to trust their party's standpoints, can be expected to adopt and replicate these when asked about their own views." She is of the mind, then, that public opinion follows government policy, which she traces back to New Labour's reassessment of welfare during its time in office. It is necessary, too, to factor in the influence of the press. The persistent presentation of benefit recipients as work-shy scroungers, and the prominence given to stories of fraudsters (as opposed to, say, those who suffer hardship because of benefits-office blunders), has had a demonstrable affect.

On Monday, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential contender, was ridiculed for appearing to write off 47 per cent of the US electorate, stating at a private fund-raising dinner that those "who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health-care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it . . . My job is not to worry about those people." The similarity between his view and that expressed in the BSA survey is chilling, especially when uncharitable indifference to the poor works its way into the heart of a political system.



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