Exaggeration enhances resistance

The higher benefits you believe people on welfare receive, the greater resistance it generates in the population. Therefore, it is very effective when politicians exaggerate their rhetoric and highlight the extreme examples, award-winning research from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University shows.

2020.06.15 | Ingrid Marie Fossum

Carsten Jensen asked a representative sample of the British population about their attitudes towards welfare benefits. Are the benefits to people on welfare too generous? And do their attitudes shift when you manipulate the figures of the welfare benefits? Photo: Unsplash

Carsten Jensen received the Harrison Award for the best article in Political Studies in 2019. Photo: AU Photo

An ordinary rhetorical weapon among politicians wanting cutbacks within the welfare state is to portray people on welfare as lazy and exaggerate the benefit levels. In this way, they can incite the population, attract votes and justify cutbacks. But who listens to this kind of talk? Do politicians only talk to those who already believe that welfare recipients receive too much? Or do other people listen too, and can this kind of talk shift attitudes? And what are the effects of comparing the benefits of people on welfare to the income of other low income groups? Professor of political science Carsten Jensen from Aarhus BSS at Aarhus University has studied this.

Carsten Jensen asked a representative sample of the British population about their attitudes towards welfare benefits. Are the benefits to people on welfare too generous? And do their attitudes shift when you manipulate the figures of the welfare benefits? For instance, is the resistance just as significant if you are told that the person on welfare only gets £ 9,000 per year (approx. DKK 75,000) than if you are told that the amount equals the minimum wage or above?

One fundamental finding from the survey experiment conducted in the UK shows that exaggeration enhances resentment and that politicians can gain support for their politics by manipulating the benefit levels in the public debate. The survey shows that the higher the claimed level of benefit is, the more the resentment in the population rises. If the respondents are told that a typical family on benefits gets £ 29,000 (approx. DKK 241,000) per year, they are generally more likely to think that the benefits are too generous than those told that the typical family on benefits gets £ 9,000. By comparison, the average household income in England is £ 26,300 (approx. DKK 218,000), and the actual welfare benefits amount to £ 20,000 (approx. DKK 166,000).

More surprisingly, the researchers also find that there is no difference between ideologically left-leaning individuals, who normally support redistribution, and right-leaning individuals, who normally do not support redistribution.

“Left-leaning individuals are also outraged, the more the welfare benefits increase. They simply believe that it is wrong. It shows that people are easily affected by figures. It is effective to conduct a scare campaign because everybody buys it,” Carsten Jensen says.

The research is published in the Political Studies journal where the article “Numbers and Attitudes towards Welfare State Generosity” was recently named best article in 2019. The research has been conducted in collaboration with Anthony Kevins from Loughborough University, who has previously been a postdoc at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus BSS.

Welfare benefits should not exceed the minimum wage - but may be lower

Carsten Jensen and Anthony Kevins have also studied which impact it has on people’s attitudes toward welfare benefits when they get information about the minimum wage in England and can compare the two.

The researchers expected that information about the minimum wage could affect people’s attitudes, e.g. by believing that it indicates a natural level which the benefits should not go below. In England, the minimum wage is generally considered to be the lowest income you can have and still maintain a reasonable standard of living. The findings partly conflict with the researchers’ expectations.

“When respondents are told that people on welfare only get £ 9,000 while the minimum wage is £ 19,000 (approx. DKK 158,000), we had expected that many would be of the opinion that people on welfare should get higher benefits. But it is actually not the case. So seeing the minimum wage as a benchmark does not have the effect that you would think,” Jensen says.

The only area in which the researchers can see an effect by presenting the minimum wage as a benchmark is when the benefit level exceeds the minimum wage, i.e. at £ 24,000 (approx. DKK 199,000). Here people take the minimum wage into account and become more sceptical.

“If people are told that people on welfare get more than minimum wage the resentment increases. The resentment will then be as high as if the welfare benefits were at an even higher level,” Jensen says.

Overall, the findings indicate a rather high level of resentment against people on welfare. If the respondents are told that the welfare benefits are lower than the minimum wage, they do not wish to increase the benefits. However, if they are told that the welfare benefits are higher than the minimum wage, the support for welfare benefits decreases.

Effective political instrument

In England, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has said that families out of work should not get more than families in work and he has complained that you can get £ 100,000 (approx. DKK 830,000) in welfare benefits.  Besides, many stories about free housing to young single mothers are circulating. There has been similar cases in Denmark as well where politicians exaggerate benefit levels and point out extreme cases to attract attention and influence the voters. 

At the 2015 general election, Lars Løkke Rasmussen and the Danish Liberal Party (Venstre) criticised welfare benefits by launching an election campaign, which claimed that a family of five could get as much as DKK 454,215 in welfare benefits.

“I do not even make that much money myself, many would probably think. Or, I make the same amount of money, but they should not make more than me. Politicians might exaggerate, but it works. People listen to these messages and believe them,” Jensen concludes.

The graph shows the attitudes of the British population towards welfare benefits. The higher benefits Britons believe people receive, the greater resistance it generates.  It makes little difference whether or not they are informed about the minimum wage level. It only makes a difference when they are told that the welfare benefits are slightly higher than the minimum wage (at £ 24,000).  Graphics: Simon Andersen Nørredam

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