Why do people think that hitting the poor is the best way to cut the deficit?

Daily mail Frontpage (The Media Blog)

Last week, Ipsos Mori and King’s College London released the results of a survey showing that Britons are (almost) wrong about everything, and especially welfare. They think that for every 100£ spent on welfare, 24 are spent on fraudulent claims, whereas the actual figure looks more like 70p. They think that a 26’000£ cap on benefits would be the most effective measure to reduce the welfare bill. It would only save 290m £, whereas stopping child benefit for families with high incomes (50’000 and above) would save £1.7bn (6 times more), and raising the pension age to 66 would save £5bn (17 times more). Almost 30% of people think that more money is spent on Jobseeker’s Allowance than in pensions, where 15 times more money is spent on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).

Why are people so wrong about welfare? You can think of a number of reasons: data illiteracy, political spin and the tabloid press. While the first is quite self-explanatory (people have trouble dealing with very big and very small numbers), the latter points raise interesting questions about the political economy of welfare reforms, and the role of the press. What is particularly interesting is that people think that hitting the poor (through a welfare cap) is more effective to reduce the deficit than distributing savings across the whole population (through an increase in the retirement age).

Politicians want us to believe that they are there to solve problems, but sometimes solving problems involves huge electoral costs. Even if increasing the retirement age would save much more money than capping benefits for low incomes, it is not exactly the measure that will win the next elections: everybody will be affected, and everybody will be against it. Hence, it may seem rational for politicians to target benefit cuts at small or marginal social groups which represent a lower electoral cost instead. If you want to save money without alienating your voters, you are much better off hitting hard a small group who doesn’t vote anyway (like jobseekers) rather than moderately cutting benefits for a large group of people who vote (like pensioners). In a country where the middle class pays for welfare but doesn’t directly benefit from it because of the high level of means testing, you are even quite likely to gain credit for finally “making work pay” even if actual savings are rather marginal. Hence, as IDS is rolling out its benefit cap, the Sun says that 74% of Britons agree with it.

Since people usually believe what politicians say, and politicians say what they think people believe, this creates a mutually reinforcing perception that hitting the poor is the best way to cut the deficit. On top of this, there are psychological effects whereby perceptions of “deservingness” mediate perceptions of costs. There has been some research showing that there are fairly consistent perceptions of deservingness of welfare recipients across citizens of European countries. Elderly people are universally seen as the most deserving, followed by sick and disabled people. Unemployed people, by contrast, are seen as the least deserving. People may think that cutting benefits for “deserving” retired recipients (which will include themselves at some point) saves less money than cutting benefits for “undeserving recipients”. Normative perceptions determine cognitive perceptions.

Finally, there is the role of the press. There is an article in the last issue of the Journal of European Social Policy about the depiction of welfare recipients in the press in the UK, Denmark and Sweden. It shows that the British press is much more negative about welfare recipients than its counterparts in Continental Europe. It is more likely to report abuse, fraud and antisocial behaviour. It also frequently depicts “single mothers abusing the welfare system” or who “have made a living out of producing children to be supported by the welfare state” (the Philpott case was probably the most prominent recently). Interestingly, survey respondents often consider this kind of behaviour in their estimation of the size of benefit fraud, while it is not illegal.

This more negative view of welfare is probably influenced by the general political context, but also by the internal logic of the media field, which favours anecdotes, vivid stories and personalisation rather than abstract concepts and complex causes. A man with two wives and 11 children is more spectacular than falling consumer demand. But it may also have something to do with the social background of journalists and media bosses themselves, specifically in the right-wing press. What is striking about newspapers like the Sun or the Daily Mail is the abysmal gap between their target readership (the older, hard-working “squeezed” middle class that feels threatened by immigration and socio-economic change) and the living standards of its bosses. The Guardian reports that Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, which has made its speciality of reports on “welfare abuse”, earned 1.8m £ last year, including 26’000 (the same amount as the welfare cap) in fuel allowances and other corporate social benefits (medical plans). He has a 14.8m pension pot, and got an inflation-busting 5% pay increase last year. Obviously, somebody with that kind of living standard has a very accurate idea of life on welfare.

3 responses to “Why do people think that hitting the poor is the best way to cut the deficit?”

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