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

de Vries, Robert, Reeves, Aaron, Geiger, Ben Baumberg (2022) Social class bias in welfare sanctioning judgements: Experimental evidence from a nationally representative sample. Social Policy & Administration, 56 . pp. 843-858. ISSN 0144-5596. (doi:10.1111/spol.12812) (KAR id:95559)


In this study, we examine whether welfare deservingness judgements in the UK are affected by a bias against claimants from stigmatised social class backgrounds. In the UK, as in other countries, stereotypes of a perceived social ‘underclass’ are widespread. Political and media discourse frequently portrays members of this ‘underclass’ as lazy, feckless, and not genuinely in need of support. Yet despite strong academic interest in perceived welfare deservingness, existing research has largely neglected the role of social class bias in deservingness judgements. To address this gap, we use a novel vignette experiment administered to a representative sample of British respondents to provide the first direct evidence of discrimination against welfare claimants with ‘underclass signifiers’. We find that the British public are 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. We also asked respondents to justify their decisions and, applying computational methods to analyse these free-text responses, we find that ‘underclass’ claimants are more likely to be blamed for violating the conditions of their benefit, while claimants from other class backgrounds are more often given the ‘benefit of the doubt’. Our findings have important implications for our understanding of the relationship between social class background and public deservingness perceptions, and potentially for the differential treatment of claimants by the benefits system.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1111/spol.12812
Uncontrolled keywords: Sanctions; Welfare; Deservingness; Social Class; Discrimination; Bias; Benefits; Underclass
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
Divisions: Divisions > Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice > School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research
Funders: University of Kent (
Depositing User: Robert De Vries
Date Deposited: 29 Jun 2022 15:27 UTC
Last Modified: 04 Aug 2022 15:35 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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