KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 27-Jan-14 22:41:49

Benefits Street: "A squandered opportunity to understand welfare dependency"

Channel 4's Benefits Street, about life in a Birmingham street where 90% of residents receive welfare payments, has been criticised for being 'poverty porn', and for demonising those who claim benefits.

In this guest post, Mumsnet blogger Head In Book says the series missed an important opportunity to explore the real cause of welfare dependency. Read her post, and let us know what you think.

Head in Book

Mumsnet Blogger

Posted on: Mon 27-Jan-14 22:41:49

(57 comments )

Lead photo

Benefits Street: promoting an anti-welfare rhetoric?

I didn't see the first episode of Benefits Street. I was doing my own take on Dry January: no Twitter, no TV. A sort of sabbatical for the perpetually bleeding-of-heart.
 
I read about the second episode on Facebook. The programme's impact had been strong enough to interrupt the usual hum of domestic whingery and inspirational sunsets, bringing with it an unmistakeable hint of pitchfork, and an abrupt end to the sabbatical. Lucky me that I could take one at all.
 
Some have criticised it as "poverty porn". Others have suggested that it has played an important role in raising the issue of an underclass often ignored or worse. For me, the series - which ended tonight - has raised more questions than answers.
 
Perhaps my main question is: why the title? With 10 times as many people receiving age-related payments as do unemployment benefit, a more representative (if incendiary) "Benefits Street" would have been a corridor in a retirement home. There are suggestions that the title was changed at the last minute, and that the participants were misled about the editorial approach. Whatever the truth, the title raised my hackles less than this squandered opportunity of a programme eventually did.
 
Far from the reported threats of arson and the deluge of Twitter hate, my overwhelming reaction was sadness. True to its genre, there was the predictable drinking, drugs and fighting -  and the stock characters, like the picaresque Danny and Fungi, whose "Shoplifting for Dummies" segment landed them in (predictable) trouble.
 
Less typically, we were shown warmth, friendship, kindness and mutual support, together with a quiet dignity in fairly hellish conditions.  Behind all this, though, were undeniably thwarted and damaged lives. The series felt like a missed opportunity to explore and explain, rather than to gawk at - and naturally judge - a snapshot. I found myself repeatedly wanting the narrator to ask why, how, when, what - not just to portray the situation as simply a given.

By framing the debate in the poisoned context of benefits, Channel 4 lost a rare chance to look more deeply at the scale, cause and effect of benefit dependency. They lost, too, an important chance to persuade to people to lower the pitchforks.

 
The series’ subtitle was "the reality of life on benefits", but it was more accurately the reality of poverty, deprivation, addiction and the aftermath of the care system and prison. Perhaps the producers didn’t intend it, but given the current race to the bottom on welfare cuts, there's an unavoidable complicity with a rhetoric which stigmatises and demonises as 'other' those who are already among the most vulnerable in society. It feeds into a prevailing narrative that the welfare state and its beneficiaries (over half of us, remember) are stitching us up, and permits, unquestioningly, claims from Iain Duncan Smith and fellow ministers that their changes are both essential and fundamentally constructive.
 
There are other quibbles. I don't fully understand the labyrinthine benefits system in this country, and I bet most other people don’t either. Rather than straying dangerously close to the stereotypes of the feckless and fraudulent, Benefits Street could have given viewers context: far more is paid to workers on low incomes than to those who don’t work, supporting low-paying employers; housing benefit goes to landlords, not tenants. Figures for benefit fraud are much lower than the public believes them to be.  Even Mark and Becky, sanctioned for over-claiming housing benefit, came across more as kids who'd naively taken half-assed advantage of a complex system than master criminals who’d set out to defraud it.
 
There were nods to the fact that some residents were working, but we never met them, reinforcing the idea that the benefits budget is blown on the work-shy. Jobs didn't seem to be there for the picking, either: the only two opportunities which we saw were the unappealing (and unrewarding) options of sex work and a 100% commission-based sales position.
 
So, was Channel 4 wrong to make the series? Giving people in difficult circumstances a platform and a voice surely falls within their remit, as does asking the hard questions about what could or should change. There was a moving scene in Episode 3 where Mark and Becky were visibly transformed when helped to gain the skills, confidence and impetus to become more assertive in their parenting, and the simple dignity and structure which the (ultimately doomed) promise of a job offered their family.
 
No-one could argue that the status quo for many of those shown is ideal, but by framing the debate in the poisoned context of benefits, Channel 4 lost a rare chance to look more deeply at the scale, cause and effect of benefit dependency. They lost, too, an important chance to persuade to people to lower the pitchforks. It doesn't matter how sensitively you retell a fairy story, if it still leaves your audience afraid of the big bad wolf.

By Head in Book

Twitter: @headinbook

Owllady Tue 28-Jan-14 17:03:50

As if it's that simple that someone with a severe addiction just clean their house!

FloweryFeatureWall Tue 28-Jan-14 17:29:02

I don't think it was a missed opportunity. I think it was a purposely designed piece of propaganda. It was never about representing an accurate view of a wide variety of people on benefits. It was about choosing the most stereotypical representations of people on benefits and using them to incite more rage against people who receive benefits.

ZenasSuitcase Tue 28-Jan-14 19:04:47

Great post. Personally I've not seen the series, but what I do hate is the media's constant demonising of benefit claimants since the LibCon's raise to power.

For me one of the issues here is "where 90% of residents receive welfare payments". Often areas become ghettoised when people of a similar culture, income and background live together. Communities then become unsustainable with the high levels of crime and anti-social behaviour, as well as high levels of evictions often due to rent arrears.

Communities need to be mixed in order to function effectively and create aspirations for people. Communities need working families, older families etc as well as people on low incomes, and this can be influenced by good housing policy at local level. It's not just about the benefits situation.

Zena's Suitcase
@homemumearthmum

NumptyNameChange Tue 28-Jan-14 19:35:57

a careful and balanced OP giving more benefit of the doubt (to the programme producers) than many of us would.

i haven't watched it, i can't bring myself to. i'm so tired of the pitchfork culture and as a teacher i am actually aware that the bar for working nowadays (even in low pay, no benefits, frankly criminal employment) is above what some people for various reasons can reach.

industry is gone to a large extent. jobs where ability to communicate in middle class english, without swearing, without losing your cool, without taking things personally or getting intimidated or intimidating or just not coping - are gone. however the social and family conditions that create citizens unable to deal with that are not gone.

it is so hard it seems for people to understand that to work in a call centre in customer services (which may be the only jobs available in your town for those without degrees for example) require skills that not all people have acquired. until recently there were jobs for those people, jobs that didn't require qualifications, middle class communication styles or the like, now there are not. there are and always have been people in society who are not going to be middle class or have communication and social skills that slot well into middle class environments for numerous reasons that haven't disappeared. going to school in an area where the majority have the same issues doesn't 'retrain' you anymore than going to prison rehabilitates offenders.

maybe it's easiest to slander and demonise people who can't fit in with the fairly recently changed demands of society than it is to face reality.

a lot of these people would have been taken on as a labourer on a building site, a plumbers mate, the teaboy wherever and been socialised into a working culture not beyond their reach by people not too far from their culture who'd be able to take them in hand. there were ways to go out and make your way and earn money in the world as someone who was never going to do well at a dinner party or win records for intelligence and social skills but who could work hard and get on with people in an environment that didn't expect them to jump through hoops they didn't comprehend. those jobs just aren't there.

seems it's easier to point the finger at a class of people who don't fit where we've gone than to point the finger at those who have destroyed the industries and labour market that they could work in.

NumptyNameChange Tue 28-Jan-14 19:44:05

i know this is beyond the understanding of most of us but there really are people who will not be able to talk, dress, behave, cope etc in the ways we want them to for modern jobs. it wasn't always necessary for 'everyone' to be able to do those things. now it increasingly is. the exploitation of education as profit making has really not and bloody helped. a 16yo who could've gone to her mum's mates hairdressing salon, swept up hair, made tea, learned to be polite and make chit chat and gradually learned to cut hair, set a perm etc now is told she has to have gcse maths and english and go to college three days a week create a funding and profit stream for someone in the process.

there are so many hoops, many unnecessary, all designed to make profit for someone, that some people cannot jump through whether you like it or not. most of us massively take for granted the skills we learnt without even knowing we were learning a lesson.

we are failing people. the fact they can't keep up with rapid change and raised expectations (accompanied by lowered recompense from employers ironically) is not the fault of those left behind in my opinion.

NumptyNameChange Tue 28-Jan-14 19:49:07

and it isn't so surprising that in the face of that some people, who can see no way to win, just say 'fuck you then!'. dignity is really important to us. we claw it anyway we can.

GobbySadcase Tue 28-Jan-14 19:57:15

I won't watch it. It perpetuates hatred in the community which will make my life and the lives of my DH and DCs harder.

I'm not ill educated. I'm not feckless or a substance abuser. All I did was have children whose multiple complex needs prevent me from working fir numerous reasons.

People need to realise that every one of us is one catastrophic event away from benefits dependency. When you're trying to deal with everything that living with multiple disabled family members entails then hate from the community can sometimes be too much to bear on top.

GobbySadcase Tue 28-Jan-14 20:01:43

Lay - what do you do when out and about and your child is taken ill in the street and you don't have a mobile phone? I'm talking really ill here - requiring hospitalisation.

Or as I was - coming back from hospital and had a car crash. Had two severely disabled kids in car with me and needed immediate help to keep them safe so needed the phone, and also to get hold of DH as our third and most severely disabled DC was in alternate care provision that morning and I couldn't get to him.

Your comments about helping yourself are simplistic and ignorant.

NumptyNameChange Tue 28-Jan-14 20:16:21

Lay - i wonder if you comprehend how some people can't afford a landline as it is so much more expensive and more of a commitment than a pay as you go simcard in a phone? and i wonder if you comprehend that when you are applying for jobs online sometimes 'phone number' is a required field and you cannot move onto the next page of your application without entering a valid phone number.

or perhaps you can consider that in even of an emergency a school needs to be able to contact a parent and a phone therefore is ESSENTIAL. my mobile isn't working at the minute and if my child got sick at school there is no way to contact me directly - i have to hope they'd have the sense to call the school i work at, leave a message with reception, that reception would be able to get that message to me in class and i'd be able to use my work's phone to call the school.

to be a contactable parent or job applicant you need a phone. a mobile phone is simply cheaper than a landline and gives access to the internet (for job apps for example) more cheaply, and without a monthly charge commitment, than an internet connection at home.

having a phone is not a luxury in today's world but a necessity. trust me the job centre will not take 'i don't have a phone' or 'i'm not online' as a good reason for not being available for work and actively applying. in my town there is no local paper anymore in paper form - they only publish online. and if you had to go to the job centre from here on a bus on a daily basis it would cost about five times as much as keeping a pay as you go sim alive.

do think about what you're saying.

StabInTheDark Tue 28-Jan-14 21:07:12

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

LayMizzRarb Tue 28-Jan-14 21:27:54

The woman with red hair is seen in every episode with her 'smartphone' you can get a clunky oversized mobile for £10, and top it up. You do not need a smartphone to call an ambulance if your child is ill or if you have a car accident. You can get access to the internet at local libraries.

Thanks for your advice, but I don't need to think about what I'm saying. I know people who work and can't afford to smoke or who don't own smartphones. One of my friends, I top up her phone from time to time, anonymously at the cashpoint. They go without to ensure their children have food, and their homes are clean and tidy.

Varya Tue 28-Jan-14 21:29:53

Very sad to see the struggle some have to survive on Benefits Street.
Our privileged rulers have no idea how some people struggle with so many difficulties. Makes harrowing viewing and empathy for the residents comes unbidden.

evilcakegenius Tue 28-Jan-14 21:48:08

I expected this documentary to be the usual benefit bashing that seems to be going on at the moment, but was surprised that they almost showed the reality that living on benefits brings. I was made redundant late last year, my hub works 20 hrs a week, I tried to claim JSA but was told due to not paying enough NI I was ineligible so now have no income. We have three children (two have Autism) and we live in the north east of England. We (thankfully) qualified for housing and council tax benefit, I am ashamed to admit we are on benefits, I am ashamed that my children go to school in second hand uniform and eat a school lunch paid for by the state, I am ashamed that we are struggling to get by and programmes like this do not always paint people on benefits in a positive light.
We do not smoke or drink, and we have no tv (our smallest boy poured juice in it and we've not had the cash to replace it) our only luxury is a 12 yr old car which hub uses to get to work in the middle of nowhere. I apply for jobs on a weekly basis and despite trying to remain positive for the children's sake it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up the façade.
What we need is the people like us who are trying to claw our way out of our poverty hole to be shown in a more favourable light, Yes there are the people on benefits who milk the system and refuse to work, and I am not on here with my sob story (oh poor me) but those people who judge need to understand we are all trying to do the best job we can with what little we have.

GobbySadcase Tue 28-Jan-14 22:41:51

Stop being a bigot.

GobbySadcase Tue 28-Jan-14 22:44:07

Right, yeah. I should cart 3 disabled kids down the library to order prescriptions and grocery shop online because I'm sometimes unable to get out.

Genius.

Meanwhile whilst we slowly starve to death and go I medicated for serious health issues you get the warm fuzzies because we're not accessing internet at home.

With brilliance like that why don't you become an MP?

FloweryFeatureWall Tue 28-Jan-14 22:44:59

Well, no, they didn't show the reality of what living on benefits brings. They showed the reality of what living on benefits for SOME people brings. I'm on benefits. My house is clean and bright, we eat meals, we don't stay up all night or hang about on the street, we don't invite local druggies and alcoholics in to use our shower etc, we don't buy stolen goods at the door. I didn't see my reality on there at all.

GobbySadcase Tue 28-Jan-14 22:53:15

Bingo, flowery.
They're probably also not up half the night because a child that needs constant care needs them and then going to umpteen school reviews and hospital appointments the following day!

LayMizzRarb Tue 28-Jan-14 23:34:56

I quite agree, there will be families who cannot get to a library, but I was not generalising about people who receive benefits, I was referring to the people whose lives are depicted in the programme. The couple referred to do not have disabled children. They were clever enough to commit benefit fraud, yet not clever enough to realise you cannot afford food for your kids AND cigarettes .

DolomitesDonkey Wed 29-Jan-14 09:08:10

It's a bit of a red herring to refer to benefits as "unemployment benefit" - we all know that if you've got kids it's benefits bingo.

Someone earlier in te thread alluded to simple money-mismanagement and I think this is often at the crux of the matter. But some cannot be helped - you'd all be up in arms if each "problem individual" was given a professional "mummy" to make their financial decisions and give them a weekly cash allowance. Some people just can't be helped - we could give them a grand a week cash and they'd still be living in squalor with empty cupboards. There is no fluffy glittered-unicorn answer.

HoleySocksBatman Wed 29-Jan-14 09:55:49

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Headinbook Wed 29-Jan-14 12:00:01

rootypig not sure if this is the sort of detail you are looking for, but it's quite a comprehensive breakdown http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn13.pdf (p5 especially, sorry, am rubbish at posting links)

Mandy2003 (and others) yes, you're right, sorry I wasn't clear re housing benefit. What I was getting at is that the vast majority of money paid out in HB will ultimately end up going to landlords, not tenants.

Really interesting reading all your responses, thank you.

BBJO1 Wed 29-Jan-14 12:15:09

I would just like to say I am a single parent. I left my children's father due to severe domestic violence, at it's worst he had his hands around my throat till I passed out understandably I had to leave.
I am in receipt of benefits as I am unable to work due to lack of childcare provision. I have relocated to another area of the country from my family and friends on the advice of the refuge I was in, after my ex put the windows through. I do however volunteer at my children's primary school.
We do not have a great deal of money, however my children are well cared for, well behaved and doing well at school.
My home is clean and tidy and I do not drink or smoke. We do things like make cakes, throw all the duvets down and sleep on the living room floor -a fun way of reducing my heating bill. We go on walks, feed the ducks and the local library. I would say we are decent members of society.
I am only writing this so people will gain insight into a selection of people on benefits, we are not all bad. When the children are older I will look for work in the mean time we can manage and are happy.

Pendeen Wed 29-Jan-14 13:55:36

Whether by guile, ignorance or innocence the blogger - and most contributors have completely missed the point.

This is not a documentary, to investigate, educate and illumate.

It is simply entertainment, designed to excite common interest and boost c4's viewing figures.

SanctiMoanyArse Wed 29-Jan-14 14:53:45

'People in private rented housing may well be there because their past behaviour has rendered them ineligible for council housing. ' that's a small proportion, a very small one- most are there because of inability to afford deposits.

SanctiMoanyArse Wed 29-Jan-14 14:58:59

And YYY to phone: indeed our schools insist on parents having them as part of the initial signing up agreement, as beforehand parents simply never came to collect sick kids.

My phone costs me £10 per month, every application for a job I fill in has a section for mobile phone and sometimes they even refuse to save on the system if the box is not filled in. Alongside all the points Gobby raised (also a carer, albeit one looking for work now). Recently I forgot my phone and had a car breakdown, the return charges call was about 2 minutes and billed in at £7.50.

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