Welfare reform reinforces growing class prejudice reminiscent of Victorian era

• Study finds people believe work is plentiful and unemployment is a lifestyle choice
• Evidence of an alarming intolerance towards disabled people, with questions over legitimacy of benefits
• Government rhetoric on ‘scroungers’ likely to reinforce these attitudes

British society is becoming increasingly intolerant of unemployed people and other disadvantaged groups, according to academics at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI).

SperiA study by the University of Sheffield has found there is a growing sense that unemployment is caused by individuals’ personal failings, rather than by structural problems in the economy.

People tend to believe that work is plentiful, and that unemployment was therefore a lifestyle choice, rather than an imposition, and that poverty therefore results from moral deficiencies.

The research also highlighted an alarming intolerance towards disabled people, with participants questioning the legitimacy of benefits for disabled people deemed incapable of working.

It is clear that the derogatory term ‘chav’ remains in popular usage. Middle class research participants tended to identify and condemn ‘chav’ culture so as to validate and re-affirm their own superior social position. Working class respondents were more likely to identify and condemn ‘chav’ culture in order to distinguish themselves from it.

We appear to be witnessing the re-emergence of traditional distinctions between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, associated with the Victorian era.

This research identifies contemporary attitudes to the unemployed by drawing on a series of case studies conducted in Leeds, in Northern England. The evidence presented here is based on 90 interviews which were conducted with participants from a variety of different social classes and ethnic backgrounds.

The Coalition government’s welfare policies are in part a response to the kind of popular prejudices identified in the research. However, government rhetoric on welfare ‘scroungers’ is likely to reinforce these attitudes – focussing blame for poverty on individuals rather than on wider structural problems in Britain’s increasingly low-pay, low-skill economy.

There is in fact a danger that misplaced fears and prejudices relating to welfare claimants will present a threat to social cohesion, potentially legitimising policies which might exacerbate, rather than alleviate, social inequality.

Professor Gill Valentine, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield and author of the report, said: “The evidence is mounting that the coalition government’s austerity agenda has been targeted at the poorest groups in society rather than the most affluent.

“This research shows that this is reinforcing prejudicial and intolerant attitudes towards the most disadvantaged members of society, as the government has been successful in individualising the causes of poverty and unemployment, and marginalising the socio-economic determinants of hardship.”

The full report can be viewed at http://speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/publications/speri-briefs/ .

Today’s publication is the eight in a new series of SPERI British Political Economy Briefs. Through this series SPERI hopes to draw upon the expertise of its academic researchers to influence the debate in the UK on sustainable economic recovery.

Additional information

Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute

The Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) is an academic institute based at the University of Sheffield. The institute aims to bring together leading international researchers, policy-makers, journalists and opinion formers to develop new ways of thinking about the economic and political challenges posed for the whole world by the current combination of financial crisis, shifting economic power and environmental threat.

The University of Sheffield

With almost 26,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2014 it was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

Contact

Hannah Postles
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 14046
h.postles@sheffield.ac.uk