Softened by austerity? Public’s rage against benefit scroungers fades

Britain's apparently relentless shift towards punishing benefit scroungers appears to have finally ended.

A bare majority of 51% supported the view that benefits for unemployed people are 'too high and discourage work' in 2012, down from the 61% seen in 2011, according to the the 30th edition of NatCen's annual British Social Attitudes survey.

Five per cent more people now believe cutting benefits damages too many people's lives, while austerity Britain has also softened the view that unemployed people could find a job if they really had to. This now stands at 54%, compared to 68% in 2008.

The figures will be viewed as bad news by those in government backing Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms.

But it could be the opposition's emphasis on the negative impact of the coalition's benefits clampdown which is driving the reversal in public opinion.

Alison Park, head of society and social change at NatCen, said it was too early to tell whether policies like the 'bedroom tax' or the more conditional benefits system was driving the change.

"Thirty years of NatCen's British Social Attitudes survey shows that the nation has become much more cynical about the welfare state and benefit recipients, but austerity seems to be beginning to soften the public mood," she said.

"It remains to be seen what impact the coalition government's welfare reform agenda will have on public attitudes, and whether the small recent upturn in sympathy marks the beginning of a longer-term trend."

The slight improvement in support for the welfare state comes after a lengthy period of deepening resentment about the benefits bill, which is now by far the costliest part of government spending.

In 1987 55% of the population backed spending on welfare, but this has gradually dropped and now stands – despite the recent upturn – at 34%.

The Department for Work and Pensions said it was understandable that people's attitudes had shifted over the last 15 years.

"The system was allowed to develop to the point that benefits could provide a lifestyle out of reach from many hard-working families and for some the incentive to work was limited," a spokesperson said.

"There is clear public support for our benefit reforms and we are continuing our work to restore the welfare state.

"The benefit cap will ensure claimants cannot receive more in support that the average household earns, while universal credit will make sure claimants know that work pays."