Following David Cameron’s election as Prime Minister in May 2010, a broad programme of welfare reform was announced which included changes to welfare-to-work schemes, cuts in the real value of many benefits and increasing conditions attached to the receipt of benefits. In the Government and much of the media’s discussions of these reforms, out-of-work benefit claimants are characterised as passive dependents who require tough measures to help them off welfare and into work.
Speaking at his first Conservative Party Conference as Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne talked of benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’, while David Cameron used his own speech to promise:
“If you really cannot work, we will always look after you. But if you can work, and refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others.”
In 2010, Ruth Patrick, a researcher from the University of Leeds, began an ESRC funded study to explore how these welfare reforms would actually be experienced on the ground by those directly affected by the changes which Cameron’s coalition government were making. The research sought to explore benefit claimants’ experiences of welfare reform, considering how far the Government’s characterisation of benefit claimants actually fits with the lived reality. It also set out to examine whether the changes in benefit regimes correspond with meaningful changes in the lives of claimants and how any such changes were perceived by benefit claimants themselves.
This research provides an invaluable opportunity to explore the lived experiences of benefit claimants during times of welfare reform and significant reductions in the support available to those on out-of-work benefits. By forefronting the experiences, perceptions and attitudes of benefit claimants, the research was motivated by an aspiration to give voice to those directly affected by the reforms, whose viewpoints are too often absent in debates dominated by politicians and media commentators.