Querulous Citizens: Welfare Knowledge and the Limits to Welfare Reform, by Peter Taylor-Gooby, Charlotte Hastie and Catherine Bromley

Social Policy and Administration, vol.37, no.1, February 2003, pp.1-20.

The research project of which this article is the result set out to discover how accurately people understand the distribution of Government expenditure. The researchers discover that public perception is quite accurate as to how much is spent on major spending categories (with most people correctly recognising that government spends far more on social security benefits than on anything else), but less accurate in relation to spending distribution within major categories (for instance, public opinion wildly exaggerates the amounts spent on unemployed people and on single parents). From a second set of responses the researchers draw the conclusion that public perception exaggerates the size of such phenomena as crime involving violence and children in poverty (though the latter not by much). The authors discover some support for more redistributive policies (from half of the bottom quartile to a third of the top), but conclude that this is not sufficient support to enable the government to go very far in a redistributive direction. The article also contains evidence leading to the conclusion that the socio-economic characteristics of the respondent partly determine the respondent’s knowledge and perception of the welfare state.

The concluding section suggests that “the goal of reduction of child poverty may attract approval, but the means (assuming they must involve redistribution from better-off to worse-off groups) are likely to produce controversy” (p.18).

This research needs to be understood alongside a research project by David Smith Associates (Basic Income: A Research Report, April 1991, prepared for Age Concern England) which found that “few respondents had a clear understanding of the current UK system of pensions and benefits. Respondents found the system confusing and unclear …… Respondents believed that there must be a better system, but felt the whole subject was too large for them to be able to offer suggestions as to how to improve it. Importantly, there was little evidence that people drawn from particular socio-economic groups were more knowledgeable than others. The lack of knowledge about the current system of pensions and benefits was a general problem that ran across all the groups included in the research” (pp.13f). It is unlikely that this situation has changed much during the last ten years.
It is not just knowledge and perception of how much is spent on different categories which matters; equally important is how much is known about the structure of the field: how the money is used, and not just how much is used. For the questions which the article’s survey asks remain within parameters established by the way in which social security and taxation are currently organised, so responses will remain within these parameters too. Tax credits were introduced with practically no public comment or debate, which rather backs up the David Smith Associates findings, and rather suggests that if a government were ever to propose major reform of social security in the direction of universal benefits then there would be too small a public knowledge-base to enable intelligent debate to occur and that there would be little public comment if the change were made – and that there would be approving comment if the change made a difference to levels of child poverty, which it would.

Further work from Taylor-Gooby, Hastie and Bromley in this area would be very welcome.