Stigma and stigmatizers

The benefits system is Britain is fundamentally flawed. The way it is designed means it guaranteed that people who claim benefits will be stigmatized. What’s more, we have a political class and media who are doing little if anything to address this problem. Worse, they are, in many cases, actually making it worse.

That is the damning finding of thorough new report from researchers at the University of Kent.

There headline finding is that there is a large stigma attached to claiming benefits in Britain. This has a damaging effect on the wellbeing of people who claim benefits and it also explains some of the “non-take-up of benefits and tax credits”

Why is this the case? The report gives many answers but one of the most powerful is the benefits system is heavily based on the means test and;

“International evidence suggests 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 may seem counter-intuitive but, as the reports authors point out;

“claimants of most means-tested benefits are consistently seen as less deserving than claimants of more universal benefits… Selectivity by its nature draws attention to the threshold between the ‘needy’ and the rest, whether this ‘needy’ group are themselves to blame for their situation, and whether claimants are appropriately grateful for the money, all of which are de-emphasised for more universal benefits”

This is important because “the UK is a country that relies much more heavily on means-testing and much less heavily on contribution than most other European countries”. What is true for the UK is even more true for the US where “welfare” is used as a term of abuse.

The reports authors conclude, therefore, that “Changing the way that benefits are delivered is perhaps the most obvious place to start trying to reduce stigma.”

What might “changing the way that benefits are delivered” involve? It might include “progressive universalism” where most households get some benefits but certain groups get more than others. It could also involve more sophisticated forms of personalization, where households are given help depending on their individual situation. Perhaps more controversially it could mean introducing a more “contributory” aspect to benefits, for example, giving people a percentage of their previous income for a period of time after they are made unemployed.

Perhaps just as importantly it means changing the culture within the benefits system. This goes deeper than a conversation over whether it is the private or public sector that should be doing the actual benefits assessment. It means changing the system so that claimants do not feel that they are the hapless recipients of generous “gifts” from the state and so that the assessors do not see their primary role being around preventing fraud.

If I had one slight criticism of the report it would be the prominence that it gives to the role of the media in creating stigma.

The report partly originates out of a concern that the media is running more and more inflamatory comments about people who claim benefits and that this is creating a more and more hostile climate. However, the report is far more subtle than that in its exploration of public opinion and the media.

The authors state that “there remains a possibility that people who think benefits claiming is shameful then choose to read stigmatising newspapers (or that newspapers simply respond to the views of their readers)”.

I find this a very hard argument to dispute. Newspapers are private businesses that try and understand what their customers want and then give it to them. This applies just as much to opinion pieces as it does to which news stories are given prominence.

The report contains some experimental research to see what impact the media could have on people’s opinion. On the basis of this approach they conclude that their intervention had a “relatively small” impact (0.05–0.20 points on a 0–10 scale). I am perfectly willing to believe that reading a certain newspaper might give someone a 2% greater chance of thinking there is a stigma associated with claiming benefits.

Is this really such a big deal in the grand scheme of things? Certainly not when you compare it to the fundamentals of public opinion on benefits.

The vast majority of people believe that large numbers of people are eligible for benefits and fail to claim them. This is true now and has been consistently true for the last 30 years, regardless of media scare stories.
Similarly, a vast majority of people agree that large numbers of people falsely claim benefits. This number has been steadily creeping up, possibly as a result of media stories, or politicians talking tough, or both. However, the point remains that the vast majority of people have felt this way for the past 30 years.

The report makes some recommendations for how journalists could improve the quality and accuracy of stories about benefits. I would say that these have as much chance of being implemented as I have of being selected as the Republican candidate for the 2016 election.

However, the report should, and I hope will, have a profound influence on how the Labour party thinks about the benefits system.

Did Thatcher and Blair trick us into hating ‘scroungers’

It is common these days for people to call for politicians to be brave and to take on and change public opinion. It is equally common for people to bemoan the ways in which politicians have manipulated the public into wrong headed beliefs. These beliefs are two sides of the same coin and stem from the mistaken idea that politicians are able to manipulate public opinion.

In fact, politicians are often completely unable to change public opinion. They are just as likely to put people’s backs up by pressing on a particular issue as they are to persuade people. People hear so little from politicians and are so skeptical of them that they are very unlikely to be hoodwinked by them in this way.

Take two examples of times when politicians have tried and failed to convinced the public on a contentious topic; the war in Iraq and the Thatcher’s attempts to cut taxes and investment in public services. In both cases, despite the best efforts of some of the most successful politicians of the last 30 years, the British public ended up completely unconvinced.

Here is a graph that shows the British public’s opinion on the Iraq war.

You can see that the red line is the percentage of people who oppose the war and the blue line is the percentage of people who support the war.

We can split the chart into 4 sections; the time before the war, the first few months of the war, the next few months of the war, and the rest of the war.

As the war got closer and closer Blair, and the government in general, tried to convince the British public that attacking Iraq was the right things to do. This was the period in which the so-called November and February dossiers were published.

You can see from the chart that this was also the period in which the British public became more not less hostile to the war. The more that Blair tried to convince people that war was the answer the more that the public opposed the war.

Then in March 2003 the war with Iraq commenced (with only 29% supporting the war and 52% opposing it). At this point many people started to support the war. You can see on the chart the way the blue line moves upwards and the red line moves downwards. This is what is sometimes known as ‘supporting our troops.’ Once the war had begun people rallied round and started to support the war. Not because of Blair’s persuasive rhetoric but because there were British citizens fighting in a war.

This period of outright support for the war was relatively short live. You can see that by June 2003 the British public were once again split on whether they supported or opposed the war.

Then, from May 2004 onwards (when it was becoming clear that the war was not going well and would not be over soon) a clear majority of the British public once again opposed the war.

The British government had clearly failed to convince the British public of this course of action, even though the government wanted dearly to convince people that the war was the right way to go.

Take a second example; Thatcher’s support in the 1980s for a policy of cutting taxes, cutting benefits and cutting the amount invested in public services and generally shrinking the state.

Hear is a chart showing the percentage of people who support the idea that the government should cut taxes, cut benefits and cut public services (as opposed to either keeping them the same of increasing both taxes and benefits and funding for public services).

The first thing to notice is the incredibly low level of support for this idea for the last 30 years. At no point in the last 30 years has more than 1 in 10 people thought that government should be cutting taxes, benefits and funding for public services.

The low level of support for this position makes it difficult to say much about changes in support from year to year, since small sampling errors can have a big effect.

However, what we can say for sure is that Thatcher wanted very strongly to increase public support for her policy of cutting benefits, taxes and funding for public services and that she was completely unsuccessful.

In fact, although it might be down to errors in measurement, it would appear that fewer people believed that this was the right thing to do by the end of her time as Prime Minister than at the beginning of her premiership.


Politicians often want to convince the public on certain topics. However, in the case of the Iraq war and the Thatcherite approach to taxes and public spending, neither Blair nor Thatcher was able to persuade a large number of people to support their preferred policy.


If they were unable to convince the public on such core topics, why do we believe that they were able to convince the public that people claiming state benefits are ‘scroungers’? What is different about this case versus the two explored here?

There is certainly less support in Britain for the idea of redistribution of income through benefits. Here is a chart showing the percentage of Brits over time that would like to see more money redistributed from higher income households to lower income households.

You can see that however you word the question there has been a dramatic falling off in support for the idea that the state should be tacking money away from richer households and giving it to poorer households.

Contrast that chart with this one showing the percentage of Brits who believe that ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.

You can see that although over this period of time fewer and fewer people support the idea of the government redistributing money through taxes and benefits, a large majority continue to believe that ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.

This is why Ed Miliband has recently come out in support of the idea of pre-distribution in which wages are more evenly distributed in the first place.


Many political commentators believe that if only the Labour party would really swing behind the idea of increased redistribution of income through the tax and benefits system then public opinion would come round to this way of thinking.

This is possibly true. However, it is just as possible to imagine a scenario in which the Labour party came out strongly for increased taxes on the wealthy and increased benefits for the poor and this already unpopular position became less popular. Just as Blair failed to persuade people over Iraq and Thatcher failed to persuade people over shrinking the state perhaps Ed Miliband would fail to convince people on redistribution.

There is a deeper point here about equality too. It seems paradoxical to argue on the one hand that you want a more equal society and on the other to achieve this by ceasing power on the basis policies that most people oppose and wielding the power of the state in support of these policies, all in the hope that people will come round to your way of thinking.

The very strength of democracy is that it is a system of government of the people, for the people, by the people, not a system of technocrats or ideologues who decide what is best for the people.

P.S. I am deeply in-debited for this blogpost to this excellent article about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of American Presidents.

P.P.S. You can find all the data I used to make the charts in this post in this spreadsheet or from polling report and the British Social Attitudes Survey