The politics of ‘welfare’ has distorted public perceptions of Social Security

17 June 2024 by TOM POLLARD

New polling commissioned by NEF suggests that most people don’t have a clear sense of the level of support people currently receive

When general elections come around, the question people often ask themselves is whether they feel better off than they did last time they voted. Alongside people’s experiences of public services and the general state of where they live, many will be mindful of how their level of disposable income has changed, particularly given the cost of living crisis we’ve all lived through in the last few years. This is the first parliament on record to see a reduction in living standards.

Although this crisis has been felt most acutely by those on the lowest incomes, poverty and inequality have so far not been prominent issues in the election campaign. The swing voters that parties focus their attentions on might be feeling less financially secure than at previous elections, but they don’t typically tend to be those on the lowest incomes.

Parties focus on the issues and policies they think will have the widest appeal or speak most strongly to people’s aspirations, such as fixing the NHS or supporting home ownership. Talking about targeting support at those on the lowest incomes is often seen as more politically risky and less likely to be rewarded with votes.

When social security does come up during election campaigns, it is often framed as ​“welfare” with a focus on the need to bring down costs or move people into work, rather than on whether people in receipt of support are able to meet their essential costs. At its worst, political rhetoric on this issue puts the blame on those who need support, suggesting that people are choosing ​“a life on benefits” rather than finding work.

All of this can leave the public with a skewed sense of what life is like for people who are having to get by on universal credit. Attitudes around social security have softened in recent years, with a growing number of people thinking ​“benefits are too low and are causing hardship”. But new polling commissioned by NEF suggests that most people don’t have a clear sense of the level of support people currently receive.

We asked people how much they thought the basic rate of benefits for people who are unemployed is (not including additional support for housing) as a percentage of a full-time salary on the national living wage (commonly referred to as the minimum wage). The average estimate was 48%. We also asked people what this percentage should be, and the average response was 53%. In reality, it is just 23%.

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