Welfare attitudes in a crisis: How COVID exceptionalism undermined greater solidarity

Robert de Vries, Ben Baumberg Geiger, Lisa Scullion, Kate Summers, Daniel Edmiston, Jo Ingold, David Robertshaw, David Young

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


COVID-19 had the potential to dramatically increase public support for welfare. It was a time of apparent increased solidarity, of apparently deserving claimants, and of increasingly widespread exposure to the benefits system. However, there are also reasons to expect the opposite effect: an increase in financial strain fostering austerity and self-interest, and thermostatic responses to increasing welfare generosity. In this paper, we investigate the effects of the pandemic on attitudes towards working-age unemployment benefits in the UK using a unique combination of data sources: (i) temporally fine-grained data on attitudinal change over the course of the pandemic; and (ii) a novel nationally representative survey contrasting attitudes towards pandemic-era and pre-pandemic claimants (including analysis of free-text responses). Our results show that the pandemic prompted little change in UK welfare attitudes. However, we also find that COVID-era unemployment claimants were perceived as substantially more deserving than those claiming prior to the pandemic. This contrast suggests a strong degree of 'COVID exceptionalism' - with COVID claimants seen as categorically different from conventional claimants, muting the effect of the pandemic on welfare attitudes overall.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-20
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Social Policy
Early online dateOct 2023
Publication statusPublished - 4 Oct 2023


  • COVID-19
  • free-text responses
  • structural topic models
  • welfare attitudes


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