Fears about welfare overuse are not unfounded

These are frustrating times to be a Guardian journalist. The welfare cuts, which the paper has been fighting so hard, are now taking effect – and the public’s response does not remotely conform to the Guardian’s weltanschauung. The welfare state is supposed to be under assault from the fat cats and the corporate elite, but held dear by the little guy. Yet as it turns out, support for welfare cuts is actually higher further down the income scale. That’s right: The very people who are supposed to define themselves as victims, and feel gratitude towards the Guardian for defending their rights, team up with the bad guys instead. How dare they?

A consternated Fern Brady writes: I interviewed about 150 families who will be directly affected by the cuts, I found the majority held the kind of attitudes that make the Daily Mail's headlines look positively left wing. […] Logically, I'd expect those on the sharp end of things to be pro-welfare. But if anything, many interviewees had internalised a Thatcherite every-man-for-himself mentality […] In a way you have to marvel at it. How do you get people to accept a policy that's inexcusably prejudiced against the most vulnerable in society? Make sure they take on the same mean-spirited, self-serving attitude that influenced that policy in the first place. Genius.

After reviewing a number of surveys on the issue, John Harris comes to the same conclusion: When it comes to big-picture stuff, a majority of us seem to believe in the notion of welfare dependency (once a controversial trope peddled by the nasty Tory right, but now as firmly built into the public consciousness as the idea that the poor spend too much of their money on booze, fags and Sky TV). […] As against the idea that disaffection with the benefits system amounts to a petit bourgeois roar from the suburbs, a lot of the noise gets louder as you head into the most disadvantaged parts of society.”

Suzanne Moore puts it most succinctly: “These "welfare" cuts do indeed have much public support. Are the public stupid, or simply people who don't read the Guardian? Well, yes.”

The authors have to perform extraordinary logical contortions to reconcile these findings with their worldview (see here for a hilarious example), but there is a less far-to-seek alternative explanation: Maybe the notion that some recipients overuse the welfare system is widespread because there is a little bit of truth in it.

If we want to get an idea of what constitutes a typical daily routine in neighbourhoods with high levels of worklessness, we do not have to rely on clichés or anecdotes. We can look at time use surveys, such as the Multinational Time Use Study (MTUS) published by Oxford University, or the Harmonized European Time Use Survey (HETUS) published by Eurostat. One paper has used these datasets to explore differences in the daily routines of the employed and the workless population, and in particular, to find out how much time the latter dedicate to work search activities.[1] Their UK data refer to 2000/01, a boom time with very little unemployment, so obviously, these figures tell us nothing about those who have lost their job in the current recession and who are now struggling to find work again. But they do tell us something about the non-cyclical component of unemployment.

In the UK, work search activities among the unemployed took up, on average, between six and eight minutes per day. This is an extremely skewed average, the result of 86–90 per cent of the respondents declaring not having looked for work at all on the respective day, while the remaining 10–14 per cent have spent considerable time looking for work. Time spent on other activities is reported only for an average of seven western European countries. But in so far as data is available for the country level, the difference between the UK and the neighbour countries does not seem to be too large, so the European figures are still somewhat informative.


Time-use survey data: Minutes per weekday spent on selected activities, Western Europe







Job search






Voluntary, religious and civic activities



Home production, caring activities



Sleeping, eating, shopping, sports



Watching TV, socialising etc.




The authors’ summary: “In each region, the unemployed sleep substantially more than the employed. [...] The unemployed spend considerably more time than the employed in leisure and social activities. A large share of this difference is due to TV watching”.

Such studies always deserve a good measure of caution. The sample size and time period covered are limited, and the data cannot show why people who have not looked for work have not done so. Some may have given up searching for work, after having searched extensively in the past. Some may have been looking for work in different ways, which would not count as classic work search activities. Some may have been deterred by obstacles that a simple survey cannot capture. And so on.

But with all these caveats in mind, self-reporting is vastly more credible than journalists’ fantasies. There is overuse of the welfare system, and to sort it out, we have to get the incentives right.

[1]As examples of what constitutes a ‘work search activity’, the survey mentions: reading and replying to job advertisements, updating a CV, calling or visiting a labour office or agency, job interviews, and working on a portfolio.

It seems to me that a person struggling to get by on minimum wage by dint of doing an unpleasant job for which they are looked down on (think someone working for McDonalds, or a streetsweeper) will resent someone being paid for doing nothing far more than will someone relatively rich doing a pleasanter job for which they get some respect (say an entry level teacher, or a journalist in a national newspaper). It is therefore unsurprising that the working poor tend to dislike benefit claimants more than do the elite- even those members of the minor elite who do not view themselves as such. I know that there are many honest benefit claimants who are doing their best to get themselves into a better life through work, and they are likely to express their frustration with their position in illogical ways (or maybe long sighted ones- they are generally poorly educated, but are not generally fools). Even those who are cheating are likely to feel guilty about it. The poor come into contact with other poor vastly more often than do even the minor elite- they know what's going on in their neck of the woods far better than any outsider. The benefit system impacts on the lives of the poor more than it does on the lives of even the minor elite, never mind the rich guys writing in the Guardian, in Academia, in the upper ranks of the Civil Service, or anywhere in Parliament. Understanding the impact of the benefit system is vital to their survival, not merely a means to feel good about themselves as it is for the elites, even if they lack the expertise to write a decent report. They would like to be treated with respect, and generally resent the idea that they are pets for some part of the elite, however many bones they get thrown. As a very uncool poet once said in a similar context "we'll wait for proper rations if you treat us rational"
As an example of neoliberal propaganda, this "study" tells us a great deal about the prejudices etc of the authors, but not much else. And how interesting that you ignore the amount of time the unemployed apparently spend on education. And of course, as always with this sort of "study", work is defined in a manner that excludes things like childcare, caring for elderly parents or disabled children, relatives etc even though the unpaid labour of carers is yet another way that this system maintains itself (without this sort of labour capitalism would be unable to function).
Don, glad you've found a way to shield your worldview, but be careful about being too specific. I don't have the original dataset, but if I had, I could have just said: Fine, let's filter out all those with caring responsibilities, and add the education minutes to the work search category. It just might have turned out then that there would still be people left who are not looking for work. You would then have to look for another reason to reject the figures, and while I'm sure you'd find one, you'd have to invest time and effort. Always safer to just shout 'neoliberal' and leave the rest vague.
Or to use vague "research" to justify prejudices.
That's more like it.
Now I get it! I'm off to get my think tank job - "Unemployment is the fault of the unemployed! Poverty is the result of poor people - my statistics prove it!" Thanks.
Interestingly, a statistically significant link between the generosity of out-of-work benefits and job search intensity could not be found by the researchers. So it seems unlikely that "getting the incentives right" can be achieved by tightening up on benefits. I expect this conclusion is anathema to the IEA.
Thanks for pointing that out Anonymous, and yes I think that conclusion will go down the "memory hole".

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.