Policy Change, Public Attitudes and Social Citizenship: Does Neoliberalism Matter? by Louise Humpage

Policy Press, 2015, 1 84742 965 0, hbk, ix + 288 pp, £75

This thorough and important book by a New Zealand academic studies changing public attitudes to welfare provisions in New Zealand, Australia and United, and, in particular, asks about the detail of changing public attitudes in relation to different governments and different policy fields in the context of a general shift towards ‘neoliberal’ policy, with ‘neoliberalism’ understood as ‘significant cuts/targeting, leading to extensive welfare state retrenchment … small government … public assets sold, shift towards private provision of social services, introduction of user pays … choice and competitiveness … reductions in benefit eligibility/generosity, introduction of conditionality … individuals, with citizens framed as responsible for ensuring their own wellbeing, active citizenship focused on citizen responsibilities, especially participation in paid labour market …’ (p.26).

An introductory chapter sets the agenda by asking whether the public simply ‘rolled over’ and accepted the changing values promulgated by ruling élites; the second chapter, concentrating on New Zealand, studies the growth of neoliberal economic and welfare policies from the late 1970s onwards; chapter 3 reveals public resistance to early phases of neoliberal policy change, but that as different governments moved in the same direction public attitudes became more accepting; and chapter 4 confirms the conclusion that the ‘process of neoliberalisation across three decades … saw the public come to accept some but not all neoliberal arguments about the need for economic reform’ (p.113) [author’s italics]. Chapter 5 charts the shift from ‘welfare’ to ‘workfare’ in the social security field, finds that during the early 1990s the predominant public attitude was that a government had a responsibility for providing a decent standard of living for people without employment, but that during the past twenty years public attitudes have hardened and there is now evidence for neoliberalism’s ‘generally negative impact on public beliefs about the social right to economic and social security … the public rolled over and accepted the need for further social security reform … ‘ (p.143). Chapter 6 shows that public expectations in relation to government provision of healthcare, education, and pensions, has remained steady throughout the period under review, and chapter 7 finds that the continuing popularity of spending on pensions, healthcare and education exists alongside ‘a desire for tax cuts and a relatively weak interest in forms of redistribution despite continuing awareness that income inequality is a significant problem’ (p.209).

The book concludes that, on the whole, the public has ‘(mostly) rolled over’ (p.227), but there are some interesting diversities along the way. Of particular interest might be the fact that recipients of unconditional benefits believe themselves to be legitimate recipients of payments from the government but that those receiving means-tested benefits are not (p.228). The author suggests that ‘such divisions among different types of social security recipients are clearly not conducive to developing a shared sense of solidarity among recipients of government income support that could potentially mobilise them against the social security reforms implemented in both New Zealand and the UK …’ (p.228). Taken with a further conclusion that ‘the public tend to support universal social programmes more than targeted ones because they are visible and proximate to a wider range of citizens’ (p.240), this is a persuasive suggestion that new universal benefits, once implemented, would receive public approval, even if before implementation the public might be wary.

Perhaps the best summary of the conclusions found in this book is that ‘public attitudes remain complex rather than straightforward. Attitudes towards social security and, to a lesser extent, redistribution have progressively hardened, but others have fluctuated’ (p.244). Such simplification of the message is required because this is a complex book, containing a mass of survey and other data, and conclusions are rarely straightforward. The ‘neoliberal discourse’ is certainly a consistent factor, but in different contexts it appears to have quite different effects on public opinion. In the context of the Citizen’s Income debate, the only firm conclusion that we can draw is that until we implement a Citizen’s Income we won’t know how people will feel about it: but having said that, some of the detailed conclusions in this book suggest that the verdict would be favourable.