Falling support for benefits is based on a delusion

It's easy to be angry at benefit claimants

Falling support for benefits is based on a delusion

"Benefits cheat given £135k!" "Single mother of six given mansion!" "Ten-strong Somali family on benefits live in a £2m council home!" Those are all stories that have appeared in the press - and we simply lap them up.

It's so easy to be angry about the 'feckless fathers' of 16 living in deliberate joblessness on 'Shameless' estates. The single mothers having babies each year and demanding bigger council houses. The immigrants who've never contributed to the economy but are given mansions.

Sometimes, the tabloids even get to interview the families in question and gleefully report back on their plasma TVs and Nike trainers. Eventually, we're left with the delusion that everyone living on benefits is a con artist who's playing the system and living in luxury that most of us couldn't afford.

But that is a delusion. The reason those news stories are news stories is because they're unusual. Most benefits claimants are not playing the system; in fact, most are living a pretty hand-to-mouth existence.

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Yet research consistently shows that British attitudes to benefits are hardening and many politicians are campaigning with a 'tough on scroungers' message. A study from social research group NatCen reveals that more than six in ten people believe that unemployment benefits are too high and encourage people to stay out of work.

That compares to 24% of the population in the early 90s (which was during a recession) – meaning public support for benefits has dropped off a cliff.

Is it possible that the occasional news story highlighting deliberate joblessness has blinded us to the real need for benefits? Unemployment surged during the recent recession, plunging far more families into life on the dole.

But £73.10 a week is hardly dangerously generous – and that's the maximum. It's £57.90 if you're under 25, while couples are entitled to just £114.85 in Jobseeker's Allowance. That's not pocket money; people are paying for food, clothes, heating, their TV licenses, their phone bills... Life on benefits is far from easy.

The press also loves a story about those on disability benefits – like the man who's been unable to work for three decades due to a bad back, but has been caught making a charity parachute jump.

But again, these stories disguise the truth. I know three people who have lost or are likely to lose their DLA under the new system. None of them are employable, they all need regular days off for medical treatment and one suffers from uncontrollable, unpredictable fits. They would struggle to find work they could manage during a boom, let alone when there are so many young, fit people desperate to work even for minimum wage.

Yet that's not what we think of when we think of benefits. We think of Shameless and Vicky Pollard and the last tabloid news story we read.

Are benefits too high? Are newspapers hardening us against claimants? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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