Policy Exchange have released a new poll by YouGov looking at perceptions of fairness, poverty and benefits (Policy exchange’s report is here, full tabs are here.)

Looking first at fairness – since the coalition was formed this has been something of a yardstick for the government. Initially at least they put a lot of effort into attempting to show that cuts were being made in a fair way. The importance of this is underlined by this poll – asked which two or three values people most wanted to see from political parties, the two top ranked values by some distance are economic responsibility and fairness (59% and 50% respectively). What actually is “fairness” in this context though? Or more specifically, what do the general public understand it to mean in political terms?

The main theme of the polling seems to be that people see fairness more in terms of reciprocity not equality. Whatever politicians mean when they talk about fairness, in the eyes of the public, to be fair seems to be about giving people what they deserve. Hence 85% agree that in a fair society income should depend on how hard people work and how talented they are, only 41% agree that in a fair society no one should get an income a lot bigger or smaller than anyone else. 73% agree with the statement that “You can have a fair society even if people’s incomes are quite unequal, as long as you have equality of opportunity”.Giving people a forced choice between a definition of fairness in terms of reciprocity (“those who do the wrong thing are punished and those who do the right thing are rewarded”) and in terms of equality (“treating people equally and having an equal distribution of wealth and income”) the first one was chosen by 63% to 26%.

Turning to perceptions of poverty, the public’s perception of poverty seems to lie closer to absolute terms, rather than the relative terms that are more commonly used by politicians and charities and pressure groups working in the sector. Asked what they thought was the best description of being “in poverty”, 70% said people were in poverty if they didn’t have the basic essentials of life (“a place to live, or enough to eat or live on”). Only 18% thought people with a place to live and enough to live on, but nothing else was a better description of poverty, only 7% that it meant people who had the essentials to live upon, but not enough to buy those things others took for granted.

There is also widespread agreement with the concept of “deserving” and “undeserving poor” – 71% of people think that there are some poor people are more deserving than others, and help should be concentrated on them. That said, people clearly don’t dismiss the idea that many people are poor through the hand life dealt them rather than their own fault – asked which of a number of experiences are most likely to lead to people ending up in poverty later in life, three of the top four were growing up with parents who were addicts, unemployed or abusive.

Attitudes towards benefits for the unemployed generally remain pretty robust. 50% think out of work benefits are too high, and discourage people from finding work, 70% think people on jobseekers allowance who refuse work or fail to attend interviews should lose half or more of their their benefits (YouGov also asked people whether this should apply to people in various family circumstances – they were more sympathetic to people with dependent children, with most respondents thinking they should lose at most a small proportion of their benefits for not seeking work, and for carers, who a majority thought should not face any sanctions for not looking for work). 80% agree with the idea that people who have been out of work for 12 months should be required to do community work in return for their benefits.

Turning to tax breaks or benefits for children produce some interesting results. People are broadly split on the idea of giving tax benefits to people with children (44% agree, 47% disagree), but opposed to giving people higher benefits for having children (by 36% to 55%) – I suspect the latter on is a case of repondents thinking about extra means tested benefits for people with children, rather than some hitherto undetected dislike of the existing child benefit provisions! 66% of people would support limiting child benefit to the first three children only.

In terms of marriage, people are pretty evenly split on the principle of whether the government should be encouraging marriage through the benefit system – 40% think they should, 45% think they should not. However, they are more supportive of the idea of the government discouraging people from becoming single parents, 59% think they should be discouraging it, 31% disagree.

Finally there are some questions on how people view their income compared to Britain as a whole, and how people view their social class. In terms of income YouGov asked people to say how they fitted in to a scale where 1 was the poorest tenth of people in Britain, and 10 was the richest tenth. People has a strong tendency to cluster towards the low-mid range. Only 24% of people saw themselves as being in the richest half of the population, 72% saw themselves in the poorest half. Virtually no one was of the impression that they were in the richest 20% of British people and at the other end of the scale, 9% of people thought they were in the poorest 20%.

This is important in terms of things like the “squeezed middle” (most people tend to see themselves as being in the middle, even when they aren’t), and support for taxes on the more affluent (most people think there are loads of people much richer than themselves, even when there aren’t).

In terms of class, 48% of people percieve themselves as working class (36% working class, 12% upper working class), 42% perceive themselves to be middle class (17% lower middle class, 23% middle class, 2% upper middle class). Note that people’s perceptions don’t tally particularly well with the occupation based socal class classifications used for ABC1C2DE cross breaks – amongst ABC1 people 55% self-identify as middle class, 38% as working class. Amongst C2DEs, 62% self-identify as working class, 28% as middle class.

(On unrelated matters, there is a “New” Harris poll on AV in the Metro today showing YES on 31%, NO on 32%. However, the fieldwork for it was conducted well over a fortnight ago, so it was week earlier than the YouGov and ICM polls showing a big shift towards NO. For obvious reasons, it can’t tell us anything about the current state of opinion)


13 Responses to “YouGov fairness polling”

  1. Anthony – Are the figures for the Harris AV poll correct? People have been tweeting 31% for NO and 32% for YES.

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  2. Shortcrust – 31% YES and 32% NO is definitely what it says in the Metro here: http://e-edition.metro.co.uk/2011/04/26/

    I haven’t seen any actual tabs from Harris though (that said, it’s two weeks old, so it doesn’t really matter either way!)

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  3. Lots of interesting stats in this survey.

    “most people tend to see themselves as being in the middle, even when they aren’t” – EM has been rather clever referring to the ‘squeezed middle!

    I’m always amused when people who work in whatever capacity or role in order to live say they ain’t ‘working class’. The self-delusional will always be with us.

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  4. Mike N,

    I don’t think it’s as straightforward as “self-delusion”. I think that social class labels are more typically used as cultural markers than economic categories. For example, I know people working with well-paid jobs in the professions who regard themselves as working class because “they live that way”.

    On the other side, if there is a family depending on a low-paid public sector salary, but who are well-educated and have middle-class behaviours, are they working class or middle class? Most people I know would laugh at you if you called them working class.

    Even a purely economic definition won’t match up exactly with the ABCD categories. What about a family in which both parents work in low-paid charity work, but who have considerable financial assets?

    Economic status and class may correlate over generations, but let’s face it: we talk about “upper class accents” and “working class accents”, which are nonsenses if social class is purely economic.

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  5. Giving people a forced choice between a definition of fairness in terms of reciprocity (“those who do the wrong thing are punished and those who do the right thing are rewarded”) and in terms of equality (“treating people equally and having an equal distribution of wealth and income”) the first one was chosen by 63% to 26%.
    ————————————————————-
    The first is not in terms of ‘reciprocity’; it is in terms of morality or even Law & Order. That’s a much more simplistic concept which is dinned into most people from childhood via parables, fairy tales etc.

    That said, left-wing intellectuals & academics often seem averse to leveraging simple, emotive statements to win support. They could learn a trick from this kind of question & response.
    8-)

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  6. Bill Patrick

    I understand your comments and also how people view themselves (we are all self-delusional: it’s our ego in play). And I note you said:

    “What about a family in which both parents work in low-paid charity work, but who have considerable financial assets?”

    Well they would be outwith my observation: “when people who work in whatever capacity or role in order to live”. Thus your ‘family’ ain’t ‘working class’.

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  7. Mike N,

    Good point on the hypothetical family not working in order to live. That said, on the ABCD category system, they wouldn’t show up in a category that matches with their social class.

    Amberstar,

    That question is about good as it gets when trying to ask people a question about reciprocity, just like the second question is a pretty good approximation of egalitarianism in straightforward terms.

    Reciprocity is a very simple concept; it’s just not an everyday term. It makes up part but not all of morality and the lawful society.

    I also think that left-wing academics are smarter than you think. For example, defining “equality” exclusively in terms of split-second income variations is a remarkably effective way of simplifying a very complex concept and sanding over several latent questions, although most left-wing sociologists I know have a far more sophisticated understanding of equality than this blunted idea.

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  8. @ Bill Patrick

    Reciprocity is a very simple concept; it’s just not an everyday term. It makes up part but not all of morality and the lawful society.
    ————————————————
    I disagree. There is nothing essentially moral about reciprocity but the question implies that there is.

    Nor am I saying that left-wing intellectuals & academics aren’t smart. They are. And subtle & nuanced & not good at leveraging ‘received wisdom’ to simplify their points.
    8-)

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  9. @ Mike and Bill,

    I think Alan Sugar would regard himself as workin class. That said I do think people are incredibly poor at self-awareness. The classic question on whether people think they are “an above average driver” (typically anything above 70% will regard themselves as an above average driver) is a good example.

    Similarly everyone thinks that they are the “hard-working families” and the “deserving poor”. They are always harsh on the “spongers over there” who don’t deserve their benefits, but surprisingly lenient on themselves and the white lies they tell on their tax forms/benefit claims to get money they are not entitled to.

    I wonder whether people would answer the questions very differently if they were made to think of relative poverty in terms that were persoanl terms to them (i.e. How would you feel if YOU did not have a car/computer/access to the internet etc.).

    The book Spirit Level, argues very strongly that unequal societies (rather than unfair ones) are bad for everyone, including the better off.

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  10. Amberstar,

    “I disagree. There is nothing essentially moral about reciprocity but the question implies that there is.”

    I didn’t say there was anything essentially moral about reciprocity. It is part of, but not the whole of, morality. Insofar as the question had any moral implications, it was because of this fact.

    Now, if the question had asked “Do you think people should get paid on the basis of what they deserve?” it would clearly not be necessarily asking about reciprocity and it would indeed be making a much more general moral question.

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  11. Adrian B,

    Oddly enough, The Spirit Level is exactly the kind of terrific oversimplification of equality of which I was thinking.

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  12. I don’t think most of the electorate think of these things in overtly political ways. To your average voter in a low paid job, a benefit scrounger getting almost as much money as they are, and a banker drawing a £2m bonus are basically in the same drawer. Undeserving Rich, Undeserving Poor. It’s all about what you deserve.

    Where political philosophy comes into the equation is in the perception of what “undeserving” is.

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  13. I’m suprised the working class is that high, I thought everyone judged themselves middle class or so we are told.

    Interesting point about the poverty cycle, people seem to suggest they believe it is the hand that is dealt to them, but the long term unemployed of today were the children in the unemployed homes of yesterday. Sanctioning these people will not get them back to work and will not benefit the child. Having worked in this area of employment the best way is giving them the tools and the opportunities to work themselves out of the cycle, sadly no government seems willing to acknowledge this.

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