Benefit stigma and the prospects for redistribution
A new report helps us understand why people who rely on benefits are increasingly stigmatised and makes important recommendations about what can be done about it. This is important: the experience of the last government suggests that it is very difficult to reduce poverty without a commitment to redistribution – raising taxes and benefits. But redistribution is unlikely to appeal to politicians when welfare spending is already unpopular and public attitudes are steadily becoming harsher.
Benefits Stigma in Britain, a new report from Turn2Us, is based on work with claimants and non-claimants, looking at the idea that claiming benefits is embarrassing or shameful. A survey found that:
- “Personal stigma” – a person’s own view that claiming benefits is shameful – is uncommon, reported by fewer than a third;
- But “social stigma” – people’s opinion of how much there’s a general view that claiming is shameful – was more common, with just under half seeing this;
- And “institutional stigma” – belief that people are not treated with respect when they claim benefits – was overwhelming, with 5 people in every 6 disagreeing with the suggestion that claimants are treated with respect.
The authors – Declan Gaffney and Kate Bell, who wrote our Making a Contribution report and Ben Baumberg (a highly respected sociologist at the University of Kent) – have asked what causes claimants to be stigmatised. In brief, their argument is that
claimants are primarily stigmatised when they are seen as undeserving or failing to reciprocate a gift
There are two circumstances where claimants are not stigmatised:
- When they are deserving – especially if they are felt to be in genuine need and not the authors of their own misfortune – and
- When their benefits are entitlements – either on the basis of prior contributions or citizenship, as with Child Benefit (till recently).
Unfortunately, people see claimants as less deserving than they once did and the public tends to over-estimate the level of benefit fraud. The British Social Attitudes Survey found that 37 per cent of the public think ‘most people on the dole are “fiddling”’. As I have noted before, just 0.8 per cent of benefit spending is overpaid due to fraud. And as Declan has pointed out to me in the past, this contributes very favourably with the level of fraud in claims for private insurance: the Association of British Insurers says that
The value of savings for honest customers from detected frauds represented 5.7% of all claims in 2011 … 7% of all motor claims in 2011 were fraudulent
In recent years the popular story about benefit fraud has focused on people claiming to be disabled when really they could work. Many newspapers have focused on the number of people being found Fit for Work under the dreaded Work Capability Assessment. Yesterday, Malcolm Harrington’s review of the WCA revealed that, 12 – 18 months after being found fit, three quarters still didn’t have jobs – which rather suggests that they did have a problem after all.
But repeating the facts hasn’t had an enormous effect on the public debate. Part of the problem is the way social security issues are reported, and the report includes a positive reference to the NUJ’s code of ethics (alongside a suggestion for new NUJ guidelines on benefits, addressing the issue of stigma.) But even more important, I suspect, is the finding that
countries with benefit systems based on contribution or on citizenship, rather than on a means tested basis, are less likely to see high levels of benefits stigma.
This is an important lesson for the future of welfare reform, but it is very much for the longer-term. In the short and medium term, I wish politicians from all parties would listen to a message some of us have been trying to get over for years:
We recommend that those trying to reduce benefits stigma do not attempt to do this by demonising ‘undeserving’ claimants, a strategy that has been tried and failed in the past. A conversation that moves away from the individual characteristics of benefit claimants and on to one that looks at the broader issues behind benefit receipt, including economic factors and the significant employment penalties experienced by disabled people, is likely to be more productive, if the aim is to reduce the stigma of claiming benefits. When politicians do talk about claimants they should emphasise typical rather than atypical cases. Most benefit claimants have paid contributions in the past, and will take part in paid work in the future, or contribute in other ways such as caring.