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?”