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Benefit `myths'? The accuracy and inaccuracy of public beliefs about the benefits system
Ben Baumberg Geiger
October 2016
Paper No' CASE/199:
Full Paper (pdf) | Appendices (pdf)

JEL Classification: I380

Tags: benefits; social security; public attitudes; myths

There is a widespread assumption that increasingly negative public attitudes to the benefits system are due to ‘myths’ held by the British public. However, there is little prior research on whether the public believe these ‘myths’, nor critical scrutiny of benefit ‘truths’. This paper therefore investigates what British people believe about the benefits system, and the extent to which these beliefs can be regarded as correct. To do this, we use 46 measures from 18 datasets, and compare these perceptions to true figures obtained from a variety of sources. We find that – against expectations – there are some areas where people misperceive the benefits system in ways that do not seem likely to lead to harsh attitudes, or where the public are (on average) relatively accurate. Yet overall, our evidence shows that the British public do have low levels of understanding of the benefits system, primarily in ways that seem likely to undermine public support. People wildly overestimate unemployment benefits compared to pensions, and also overestimate how much unemployment claimants without children receive. Half of people believe that out-of-work benefit claims have risen in the past fifteen years, whereas they have fallen noticeably. And while it is difficult to know the true level of benefit fraud exactly, the public overestimate fraud compared to any reasonable figure. We conclude by discussing the implications for both understanding and changing attitudes towards benefits.