The Wilson Quarterly

Britain is one of the bastions of the modern welfare state; decades ago, its people became comfortable with the idea that the government was responsible for funding social programs to reduce income inequality. A study conducted in January by the market research firm YouGov, however, indicates a decisive change of heart.

The survey’s strongest message: The British public wants deep cuts in social spending. After more than a year under the controversial austerity policies of Conservative prime minister David Cameron, 74 percent of respondents said they thought that the government doles out too much in health, welfare, pension, and other benefits, reports Peter Kellner, the president of YouGov. The sentiment is strikingly pervasive. Almost 60 percent of members of the center-left Labor Party who were surveyed agreed, as did a majority of those who made less than £10,000 per year (about $16,125).

Perhaps more surprising is that Britain’s current financial woes were not the main impetus for the evident change in public opinion. Rather, it was the perception that tax and welfare regimes are fundamentally unfair, with benefits going to the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

How did British social spending become such a source of contention? Support for the welfare state has been waning since the mid-1980s. Spending is much greater now than it was a generation or two ago. Following World War II, most Britons were working class; they had jobs, but few paid income tax. “Welfare spending was an immensely popular but also affordable way of helping the right people in the right way,” Kellner says. In the early 1950s, social security, for example, consumed only five percent of Britain’s gross domestic product. Today it soaks up 14 percent.

Taxes have risen substantially to cover the growing bill. But few “think they are getting their money’s worth,” Kellner explains. Two-thirds of respondents said that either a significant minority or a majority of beneficiaries were gaming the system.

Even so, Britons don’t favor across-the-board cuts. Only about a tenth of respondents said that spending on the elderly and disabled—groups that include the middle class, and display fairly obvious need—should be trimmed. Populations perceived as “scroungers”—the unemployed and unmarried single parents, for instance—were the ones to attract ire. Universal benefits, such as the child benefit, which is paid to all parents of children under 16, were also viewed negatively. (Next year, this benefit will be reduced or eliminated for higher income families.)

The British are not turning their backs on the welfare state, Kellner believes, but want “to return to its essence,” as conceived in the famous Beveridge Report of 1942. That means a leaner welfare state, more carefully targeted toward the truly needy.

THE SOURCE: “A Quiet Revolution” by Peter Kellner. Prospect, March 2012.

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