The respected British thinktank Policy Exchange has just published a research note Just Deserts: Attitudes to Fairness, Poverty and Welfare Reform.

It reports findings by market research company YouGov on what the British public thinks fairness really means and the implications of this widely endorsed concept for poverty and welfare issues.

Interesting results are as follows:

What is fairness?

  • Second only to “economic responsibility”, “fairness” is the second most important value which voters want to see in a political party.
  • The majority of people think that fairness is mainly a question of people getting what they deserve, rather than being about equal treatment.
  • By a margin of four to one (73%-18%) people agree that society can be fair even if it is unequal – as long as there is equality of opportunity.
  • Some of the least popular options for increasing fairness were reducing tuition fees (11%) and banning private education (4%), while increasing welfare benefits was the least favoured option of all, with just 3% identifying this as an effective way to create a fairer society.

Poverty and its causes

  • Few members of the public endorse the more expansive definitions of poverty favoured by many academics, which equates poverty with differences in relative incomes, or some people not having goods that other people have. 
  • By a margin of four to one (71%-16%) people agree with the statement that “Some people who are poor are much more deserving than other people who are poor. We should focus help on those who are trying hard and doing the right thing, rather than those who have made themselves poor.”
  • Asked what factors might make a child more likely to end up poor in later life, people identify factors like growing up with drug/drink addicted parents (60%), failing to gain any qualifications at school (37%), or growing up with parents who are unemployed (33%).

Fairness and welfare reform

  • By a margin of six to one (80%-13%), people agree that “people who have been out of work for 12 months or more, who are physically and mentally capable of undertaking a job, should be required to do community work in return for their state benefits.
  • The median voter would back the idea that jobseekers should spend 3-5 hours a day searching for work.
  • The public would back a stronger sanctions regime in the benefits system than exists at present.
  • The public would back particularly tough sanctions for drug users, people with criminal records, or those who have claimed benefits several times before.
  • By more than two to one (66%-27%) people agree that “People who have more than three children should not get extra child benefit if they have a fourth”.
  • The government shouldn’t encourage marriage through the tax system, but should discourage people from becoming lone parents.

It seems the views of respondents to the YouGov survey are consistent with many of the themes in the recent Welfare Working Group report chaired by Paula Rebstock.

The research note quotes a perceptive statement by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.  His view contrasts with the views of some ‘poverty advocates’ in New Zealand:

“You cannot measure poverty with a snapshot because people’s lives last longer than a single second. If you want to measure genuine fairness, the question to ask about government policy is what its dynamic effects are, particularly across the generations. How does it change the future course of people’s lives? How does it increase their opportunities? Will it unlock the poverty trap or deepen it?”



  1. From Wikipedia:

    “YouGov’s former CEO Nadhim Zahawi resigned from the board to stand in the 2010 General Election and is now a Conservative Party MP for Stratford Upon Avon. The current CEO, Stephan Shakespeare, stood in the 1997 general election as the Conservative candidate for Colchester.”

    Not sure I’ll spend much time wondering about what prompted this survey….or looking overmuch at its methodology.

  2. An opinion poll about poverty is about as much sense as an opinion poll about climate change, about who will will the rubgy world cup, or the existence of the Higgs Boson – especially when you’ve cherry-picked the report:

    Meritocratic ideas (reward according to effort and ability) are more widely endorsed than either free market conceptions (reward according to what the market will pay) or egalitarian conceptions (equal rewards)….

    Reducing unemployment (45%), cutting tax on low earners (45%), and reducing the cost of living (38%) were seen as the most important steps to a fairer society

    The facts about poverty and unemployment are well known and agreed by economists: poverty and unemployment is caused by minimum wages, restrictive employment legislation, and benefits.

    Whether people like it or not three simple commonsense policies could eliminate all unemployment overnight
    – elimination of all benefits (including DBP and Super)
    – elimination of all minimum wage legislation (including youth minimum wage, youth rates, Crimes act sections 98 & 98AA)
    – elimination of restrictive employment legislation (ERA & Holidays ACT, Unions etc)

    Give NZ borrowed $1 BILLION a couple of weeks ago, $800 MILLION the week after that, and is now running at $350 MILLION per week, NZ simply cannot afford not to introduce all these policies. Luckily they are all from the 2025 Taskforce, and will be introduced in the emergency budget after the next election.

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