Oxford study shows public bias against welfare claimants from stigmatised social class backgrounds

Sign for a Food Bank

recently published study by Oxford University Department of Social Policy and Intervention (DSPI) has found the first direct evidence of discrimination against welfare claimants from ‘underclass’ backgrounds.

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

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

Co-authors of the research, Aaron Reeves, Robert de Vries, and Ben Geiger commissioned a nationally representative YouGov survey of 1,500 people. Respondents read a detailed description of a claimant who had missed their last two compulsory JobCentre meetings. They read about either i) an ‘underclass’ claimant whose parents were both unemployed and claiming benefits, ii) a ‘middle class’ claimant whose parents were both architects, or iii) a ‘reputable working class’ claimant whose parents were a plumber and a dinner lady. Despite all other aspects of the claimant and the scenario being identical, respondents were significantly more likely to say that the ‘underclass’ claimant should be sanctioned.

Support for ‘underclass’ sanctions

Robert de Vries, co-author of the report 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.

Wider implications for policymakers

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, the more appealing harsh welfare policies will be.

Read Social class bias in welfare sanctioning judgements: Experimental evidence from a nationally representative sample