British public more willing to sanction welfare claimants from ‘underclass’ backgrounds

Olivia Miller
Picture by Wiki Commons

New research led by the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research has found the first direct evidence of discrimination against welfare claimants from ‘underclass’ backgrounds.

The British public are 25% more likely to endorse a sanction against a benefit claimant from an ‘underclass’ background than against an otherwise identical claimant from a less stigmatised background.

Stereotypes of perceived social ‘underclasses’ are widespread in the UK, with members of this ‘underclass’ portrayed in popular culture as lazy, feckless, and not genuinely in need of support.

The study led by Dr Robert de Vries (Kent), alongside Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger (also Kent) and Dr Aaron Reeves (University of Oxford) found that survey respondents were significantly more likely to suggest that an ‘underclass’ claimant should be sanctioned, when presented with detailed descriptions of claimants from different backgrounds missing their last two compulsory JobCentre meetings. Aside from the claimant’s class background, all other aspects of the claimant and the scenario were identical.

Given the likelihood that public biases are also present in frontline JobCentre staff (as has been shown to be the case in many other fields), this study suggests that potential class-based bias in JobCentres should be a pressing concern for policymakers. Currently, discussions around bias and discrimination focus primarily on ethnicity and gender. However, this research shows that class background is a potent potential source of discrimination as well.

The research also suggests one possible explanation for strong public support for punitive welfare policies. If it is more attractive to punish ‘underclass’ claimants, then the more strongly ‘benefits’ are linked to this class in the public mind and the more appealing harsh welfare policies will be.

Dr de Vries said: ‘Our research shows that the British public is substantially more likely to support sanctions for the same offense when a claimant is perceived to be part of the ‘underclass’. In other words, those who are the least likely to have other resources to fall back on are felt to be the most deserving of financial punishment.’

​Their research paper titled ‘Social class bias in welfare sanctioning judgements: Experimental evidence from a nationally representative sample’ is published by Social Policy and Administration. doi: 10.1111/spol.12812