School of Social and Political Science

Welfare supporters better informed than sceptics, study by SPS researchers suggests


People who support greater state involvement in delivering services know more about economics and welfare provision than those favouring smaller government, research led by a team from the School of Social and Political Science (SPS) suggests.

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

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

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

Lead researcher Dr Jan Eichhorn, a lecturer in social policy at SPS, said: “Often small-state proponents 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.”

The study revealed significant knowledge gaps in most 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 the welfare budget spent on unemployment benefits – the average guess was 36.9 per cent but the true figure is less than five 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 three per cent according to official government figures.

The team - which also included SPS' Dr Daniel Kenealy and Dr Hayley Bennett - found that those who back higher welfare spending and greater state involvement in the delivery of services were less likely to overestimate these statistics.

Researchers say political affiliation is a relevant factor as well. Labour voters were less likely to over-estimate than Conservative voters and also scored higher on fact-based questions.

Dr Eichhorn said: “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.”

Given that attitude surveys are 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, which were published in the journal Social Policy and Administration.

Read the full article in Social Policy and Administration here.

Read the story on the University of Edinburgh website.