Welfare supporters better informed than sceptics, study suggests

People who support greater state involvement in delivering services know more about economics and welfare provision than those favouring smaller government, research suggests.

Researchers questioned nearly 4,500 adults on the workings of the UK economy and social services to better gauge how people’s understanding influences their political views.

Analysis showed supporters of a more comprehensive welfare system – including greater wealth redistribution and more generous benefits – scored higher than sceptics.

Pro-welfare respondents answered more fact-based questions about finance, benefits and employment rights correctly than those who are anti-welfare.

Similarly, people who advocate state delivery of key services such as healthcare, education and transport revealed greater knowledge than those who support private provision.

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Fuller understanding

Attitudes that favour greater state involvement are therefore grounded in a fuller understanding of how the system works, researchers say.  

“Often small-state commentators allege that people only support more welfare because they benefit from it and because they don’t understand how things work in reality – but that isn’t true,” says lead researcher Dr Jan Eichhorn, of the University of Edinburgh.

The study, however, revealed significant knowledge gaps in people’s understanding of the UK’s economy and welfare system – particularly finance, benefits, and employment rights.

Most respondents massively over-estimated the proportion of welfare budget spent on unemployment benefits – the average guess was 36.9 per cent but the true figure is less than 5 per cent.

People also hugely miscalculated levels of benefits fraud – the average guess was 28.1 per cent while the actual amount of overpayments attributable to fraud is just under 3 per cent.

Crucially, the team says, those who back higher welfare spending and greater state involvement in the delivery of services were less likely to overestimate these statistics.

Political views

Researchers say political affiliation is a key factor. Labour (and SNP?) voters were less likely to over-estimate than Conservative voters and also scored higher on fact-based questions.

Dr Eichhorn, who is based in the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, says: “Previous studies revealed significant gaps in the UK public’s knowledge of the welfare state and economy without revealing which groups knew more, and which less.

“While men, older people and graduates show slightly better knowledge on average, substantial differences appear when we distinguish specific domains of knowledge. Women, for example, know more about benefits but men more about finance.”

Understanding patterns of economic knowledge requires more complex engagement than has been undertaken to date, says Dr Eichhorn.

Important findings

Data was generated by a survey of UK residents in July 2021. Researchers say the findings, published in the journal Social Policy and Administration, could have a significant impact.

Given that attitude surveys are so influential in shaping policy, the findings could contribute to a political debate on welfare that is more nuanced than previous discourse.

Identifying knowledge gaps among people who rely on the social security system can help efforts to better inform people of their rights and improve how the system functions.

The team says further research is needed to explore the findings further. There is a clear link between attitudes and knowledge but other factors shape people’s views too, says Dr Eichhorn.

Related links

School of Social and Political Science

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