Attitudes to welfare: a departure from the past or more of the same?


John Hudson


Ruth Patrick


Emma Wincup







The latest issue of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice is a special themed issue exploring ‘welfare’ attitudes and experiences. Here, the issue editors – John Hudson, Ruth Patrick and Emma Wincup –  look at hints that attitudes to welfare may be changing.


Discussions about ‘welfare’ in the UK over the past five years have been set against a dominant backdrop of ongoing welfare reform. The key players in government – David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith – have focused on ending what they describe as a culture of ‘welfare dependency’.

This political landscape shaped public and media debates, with the negative characterisation of ‘welfare’ and the lives of those who rely on it only further embedded by the exponential growth in ‘Poverty Porn’. However, in the 12 months since we began assembling the research we report here,  the UK’s political landscape has been dramatically altered by Brexit: Cameron, Osborne and Duncan Smith are all figures of the past.

The ramifications for social policy are unclear, but today, as we publish our Journal of Poverty and Social Justice special issue on attitudes to ‘welfare’ and lived experiences of those reliant on the most stigmatised form of state support, there are hints of a new rhetoric, politics and approach on ‘welfare’ in the UK.

How politics is changing

Brexit has brought to the fore concerns about social divisions, social solidarity and social insecurity with many commentators pointing to the social roots of Brexit, particularly supporters expressing concerns about immigration through voting ‘leave’.

“…fighting the corner of those ‘just about managing’.”

Prime Minister, Theresa May has committed to fighting the corner of those ‘just about managing’. This re-working of the ‘hard working majority’ mantra beloved by Cameron’s government lends support to the establishment of a more expansive vision for social policy, which May has come under pressure to implement.

The new Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions, Damian Green, has promised to employ a new ‘tone’ and ‘language’ on ‘welfare’ and pledged an end to some of the benefit cuts which have formed a key part of the austerity agenda. His decision to delay full implementation of Universal Credit until at least March 2022 and to end the repeated work capability assessments of those with severe and chronic conditions are important points of departure from the past.

The Labour Party too shows signs of shifting stance. Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected leader of the Labour Party on a pro-social security stance which explicitly opposes the benefits cap. Owen Smith also offered a different tone, including a commitment to recreating a Department of Social Security.

The boldest moves, arguably, are those made by the Scottish Government, which has pledged to use its new devolved powers to set out a more progressive and egalitarian approach to social security. There is a renewed commitment to the language of social security, allied with a concrete focus on ensuring that key principles of dignity and respect are enshrined within legislation and subsequently policy practice. A practical example of this is the decision taken not to use sanctioning as part of the devolved Work Programme.

The sharp end of ‘welfare’ and public attitudes

Set against this shifting context, the collection of papers in our special issue make a particularly timely contribution. They explore experiences at the sharp end of ‘welfare’, and highlight whether and how far negative public attitudes to ‘welfare’ have really changed over time.

Hudson and Lunt caution against a nostalgic view of ‘welfare’ attitudes in the past and remind us that pejorative attitudes to welfare were common in the 1960s and 1970s too.We need to look beyond the discourse of current politicians as an explanatory factor for current public attitudes.

Baumberg Geiger and Meuleman note that attempts to fight negative perceptions by ‘busting’ and fact-checking commonly believed myths about ‘welfare’ are unlikely to alter beliefs rooted in deeply held values, but they also note that the nature of support for the welfare state in the UK does not differ radically from that found in countries with more generous systems.

Such arguments underline that public attitudes to ‘welfare’ have deep social roots. In exploring experiences of ‘welfare’ our papers demonstrate some of the ways in which the design of welfare state institutions themselves affect how complex and multi-faceted public attitudes to welfare are generated and reproduced.

Patrick’s study suggests the need to reform the processes associated with benefit receipt which affect how claimants see themselves, imagine they are seen by others, and experience the process of making a claim. Garthwaite’s research identifies the importance of offering a welcoming physical environment with a non-judgemental and relaxed atmosphere.

“… ambivalence provides an opportunity to promote change: it is not the same as opposition.”

The papers in the issue also highlight that public attitudes to ‘welfare’ as a whole are best characterised by ambivalence. This is partly due to the limited knowledge of policy detail most people have – the increasingly targeted nature of social policy provision means, for a growing part of the population, ‘welfare’ is seen as something affecting ‘other’ people. But, as Wincup and and Monaghan note, ambivalence provides an opportunity to promote change: it is not the same as opposition. Moreover, when ambivalence is a consequence of limited knowledge or a narrow public debate, research may be able to play a role in helping (re)frame arguments, particularly when used to influence the way key gatekeepers present issues in the media.

Given the currently unpredictable climate of UK politics, it is probably unwise to make firm predictions about the future. While there are signs that some of the political discourse surrounding ‘welfare’ may be shifting, the ‘new’ tone needs to be accompanied by shifts in policy and institutional design across the UK if it is serious about addressing some of the social and political divisions that Brexit debate appears to have shone on a light on.


jpsj-special-issue-coverJohn Hudson (University of York), Ruth Patrick (University of Liverpool) and Emma Wincup (University of Leeds) are the co-editors of the October 2016 issue of The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, which is a special issue on ‘Exploring ‘welfare’ attitudes and experiences’.

For more information about the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, including how to submit an article and sign up for a free institutional trial, please visit the Journal Website.
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