This is the age old question but goes to the heart of the current poisonous debate about welfare.
The Victorian notions of "deserving" & "undeserving" poor are back with a vengeance & it is no accident.
The United States, as ever, are 20 to 30 years ahead of us in the powerful right wing rhetoric & dismantling of the welfare state. For them as usual, the debate was racialized by the term "welfare queen" - supposedly feckless single (black) mums milking the system by excessive irresponsible breeding. But the tough sanctions over there including locking up 2.5m people in jail don't seem to have made the poor & "feckless" reduce in number or "come to their senses". Quite the opposite!
Whatever you think the reasons for the growth of "benefit dependency" or inequality, the result is EVERYONE at the low income end, regardless of how hard they try, are suffering because of the stigmatizing of the poor by our media & political establishment & the resultant public support for the removal of state help.
The tide of propaganda has turned neighbour on neighbour in the poorest areas & a majority now seem to want welfare cuts, even though the most hardworking low paid will lose the most.
So to the crux of the argument. Are there more (millions more) lazy feckless people defrauding & abusing our benefits system than there were, say 30 or 40 years ago? And if there are, where have they come from? How have they been created? Is it because welfare is now "too generous"?
The starting point to answering this, is not to look at the welfare state but to look at the jobs market.
With the emergence of "stagflation" in the 1970s, largely caused by massive oil price inflation, governments abandoned the concept of "full employment".
One of the founding pillars of Beveridge's welfare state was the removal of the evil "idleness". To do that there has to be not only "plenty of jobs", but at wage levels that provide a "reasonable" standard of living, i.e. "a living wage".
While the economy was booming in the 25 years after the war with massive technological advances in labour saving devices mass produced for "consumerism", there seemed to be an acceptance by the ruling class of having large numbers of reasonably paid jobs, low unemployment & less excessive salaries at the top. Low skilled workers were in demand, could achieve livable wages & have a choice where they worked.
As well as this, houses were being built at an unprecedented rate - four times the numbers of today & this kept housing costs down allowing a decent & growing disposable income for most. And of course this building (mostly with borrowed money!) greatly increased the assets of the country well into the future and economic growth for future generations, as well as helping pay the debt down easier in the long term. In the last 20 years by building a millions houses less than France we have deprived our country of wealth for generations to come.
Where I'm going with all this, is that the financial DIFFERENTIAL between low wage jobs & welfare benefits was much greater then than today. Not only are low wages lower today but we tax low wages far more (and high wages far less). Council tax hits the low paid far more than the rates ever did & VAT & National Insurance that hit the low paid most, have both been more than doubled. While the top rate of tax & taxes on profits have been halved.
Put simply, the "lazy & feckless", if we really insist on labelling millions as such, were mostly in work because there were big financial incentives to do so & jobs were in plentiful supply. Yet excluding housing costs, welfare is actually less generous now than it was then, in fact "the dole" has been halved from around 20% of the average wage to about 10%.
The attractiveness of welfare is largely to do with the housing crisis. Whereas housing costs were less than a fifth of wages 30 years ago, they are now more than half of low paid wages.
The skill levels & determination required are far higher today to secure a living wage. Consequently, even though people are generally more disposed to work harder & accumulate more skills, more of these "lazy feckless" find themselves without a job or fall into despair at how daunting & unrewarding the whole process of low paid work can be.
So why are welfare "scroungers" seemingly far more visible than in the past? Well partly because the media focus relentlessly on them, but also because long periods of worklessness ARE far more prevalent ever since Thatcher encouraged long term sickness to massage down unemployment figures.
But also it is inequality - a deliberate government policy made worse by the pressures of US global influence. Whereas in the past the middle class gladly took council houses and architects could live next door to street cleaners or bricklayers. Nowadays we are very ghettoised between rich and poor who lead very separate lives usually miles apart. This separation means the middle class mainly know the poor through the media and they don't get a very flattering picture!