People on high incomes are much more likely to support middle-class welfare, but also support stricter controls on welfare for low income earners than the rest of us, data from Essential Research shows.

Essential’s poll last week asked for responses on a series of statements about welfare, family payments and who should be able to access them, with breakdowns of household income. Big differences in attitudes toward welfare emerge between different income levels.

  • Support for the government’s budget decision to continue a pause on the indexation of cut-off thresholds for family payments is lowest amongst those households most affected, earning between $100,000 and $149,999, with only 42% strongly approving it or approving it, compared to 52% overall, and 58% of people from households earning $50,000-99,999.
  • In contrast to strong support from low and middle-income households for the view that households earning over $150,000 don’t need family payments (84% of low income earners; 70% of households earning $50,000-99,999), only 35% of high income earners in households earning more than $150,000 agreed.
  • High income earners much more strongly approved of the view that “households on high incomes pay high taxes so should get family payments for bringing up children”, 62% compared to 33% overall, and much less strongly approved of the view that “welfare payments should only go to those on low incomes”, 43% to 66% overall.

While those results clearly reflect the direct self-interest of higher-income earners, they also have different views about the nature of welfare compared to others.

Asked about how to define welfare — “family payments aren’t really welfare — they just provide assistance for families raising children” — 65% of people from households on $150,000-plus and 69% of people from households earning $100,000-149,999 agreed, while only half of people overall agreed. Asked whether they backed the notion that “welfare for low income families is different from family payments to middle income families”, there was agreement across all income groups, with 61% overall agreeing, but 66% of all those in households over $100,000 agreed.

Given another view of welfare — “the purpose of welfare payments is to reduce the difference in income between people with higher incomes and those with lower incomes” — reactions were more mixed, but higher income earners were less enthusiastic. While 40% overall agreed with it, just 27% of $100,000-149,999 agreed, and 38% of those over $150,000.

But higher income earners also differentiated between welfare and family payments in another way. They were much more likely to support the view “welfare payments should be reduced for those who have been on them long term”. A bit over half of the over $150,000 bracket approved of that, and 49% of $100,000-149,999, but support falls rapidly away among middle and lower income households. Overall only 41% approve.

On the suggestion “people on low incomes receiving welfare should have to justify how they spend it”, 65% of $150,000-plus and 56% of $100,000-149,999 agreed, compared to 47% overall.

Essential’s sample size of 1028 means a breakdown of income groups by those receiving benefits and those who don’t is too small, preventing a close analysis of how receiving family payments affects attitudes toward welfare beyond income. But overall, 39% of respondents said they were receiving benefits, 57% weren’t and 4% didn’t know. Predictably, benefits declined as income rose; nearly 60% of respondents from households under $50,000 received benefits and 39% of those earning $50,000-99,999. A quarter of those earning between $100,000 and $149,999 were receiving benefits.

Attitudes toward welfare traditionally have reflected attitudes toward those receiving it, with clear delineations between those perceived as deserving (pensioners, the affluent) and undeserving (the unemployed, those falsely claiming disability payments). However, it’s also clear that attitudes are shaped by income as well.