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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


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

annieorangutan Tue 28-Jan-14 07:42:18

I think its good. I really like Mark and Becky, especially Mark. He tries his best and I think the third episode portrayed them a good light as they are trying hard and trying to overcome their problems. Even Fungi who cant get it together shows his struggles with the dependency and not being able to see his kids and shows he wishes for a different life. I dont think it shows bad people at all. If this show was propaganda then it hasnt worked as everyone I have spoken to about it is talking about it positively about it, and feeling empathy rather than anger.

fusspot66 Tue 28-Jan-14 08:26:28

Catherine, you nailed it. How are some of those injured souls on Benefits St and every similar street through the country going to leap up, don smart clothes and work 5 days a week in non existent jobs. Thank you.

Mandy2003 Tue 28-Jan-14 08:26:49

Good OP. A fundamental problem that claimants face, though, is that housing benefit DOES get paid to them not the landlord. It is really hard to get it paid to a landlord in fact. There is some long lost ideological reason for this but bearing in mind its paid into a bank account it only needs a wrongly timed DD for things to begin to slide.

Piscivorus Tue 28-Jan-14 08:40:21

I don't think any of the people on it come across as being bad people, just damaged and in need of help and education.

The big question though is whether the current benefit system is providing the help and education they need or condemning them to a miserable, grinding life of bumping along the bottom.

I don't know what the solution is. When times are hard people look for others to blame and look down on, non-working benefits claimants are seen as the undeserving poor and are an easy target. We need to find ways to make these people feel valuable to society and take responsibility for their own futures but how, when there are so few jobs for them?

Custardo Tue 28-Jan-14 08:46:26

I watched part of the first episode but I refuse to watch anymore and give C4 my consent that this is ok.

people watching this are tacitly giving their consent that this is ok even if they do not think it is.

what I did think of the part I watched was the fabulous sense of community, people helping each other, enterprise. I think this would be an excellent aspect to explore.

the motivation behind this programming is sickening, jumping on the IDS/Daily Mail propaganda train which is changing the culture of how people see those who claim benefits.

the programme makers lied to the participants, they have caused them to receive death threats and c4 paid to move them because of this. Death threats!

this is the hate and vitriol Britain we live in

where are channel 4 when it comes to exploring the 65billion lost through the rich using tax loopholes or not paying tax at all?

zizzo Tue 28-Jan-14 09:15:23

The last couple of episodes have shown a much more balanced view of the lives of these people stuck within the benefits system.

Some of the former denouncers of the people shown in the show have actually turned around and expressed sympathy for them now.

I would like to think that C4 are being clever and whipping up outrage from the first few episodes and are now trying to change popular public opinion, but I'm dubious about whether they are that deliberately manipulative in that way. It would be cool if they were - it would show all the baying mob just how much they overreact against people who are dependent on benefits, and how biased they are against them.

Owllady Tue 28-Jan-14 10:13:25

One of the houses is owned by a Tory mp, riddled with damp and the family (or housing benefit) are paying £215 pw for the privilege

Two hundred and fifteen pounds a week
Fir a falling down house in Winston green shock

The level of the housing was awful. As a private renter who pays less in a nice area, I am really shocked. Is nobody else shocked by this? Those houses are nit worth a grand a month

Owllady Tue 28-Jan-14 10:15:26

No judgement of the people living in them btw. But I think it highlighted more issues than what it concentrated on. Fungi living conditions were dreadful. I am not sure how anyone can think that is ok

SanctiMoanyArse Tue 28-Jan-14 11:05:50

I understand the benefits system well because of what I do for voluntary / used to do for work, it is flawed but the new changes will only make it more so. Needing reform does not equate to needing this specific set of reforms!

I have so much sympathy for people trapped in the system, especially now when jobs are ahrd to find; and outside London they are- I've applied for lots recently and not had a single interview or even thank you response, I'm educated to post grad level and able to apply for a much wider range than the 'typical' families this sort of thing features.

I understand why HB is often paid to resident- we had a scenario before where a tenant could be out of work from just a few weeks but their lease specified no DSS (as was known then) so they were out on their ear even when they had work. there should be options, though- UC vlanket bans payments to landlords which is a crying shame for vulnerable people, and more also presumably would aid any dodgier landlords in hiding income? (I know most aren't dodgy, we rented our former home out in years gone by).

I worry about monthly payments of all benefits as well: apart from that initial month with nothing coming in (oh yes there will be), the most vulnerable people of all won't be used to budgetary management at that level. It sets people up to fail.

At a wider level the system doesn't help people return to work, a friend had to give up her son as she could not always feed him as her job was zero hours and it would take benefits three months to pay a claim (made new every time) when she wasn't allocated any hours, sadly her exP is abroad so she doesn't see her son most years now. Although I apply for anything local, as we don't get income support and so no back to work help (Dh earns very little, I am on carers), I can only apply for localish work as otherwise simply could not afford petrol / tolls for that first month where Carers withdrawn and no pay. We have a car for disability reasons / DHs self employment but often it stands idle and with no petrol now anyway (dearth of public transport locally)

FourHorseShoesoftheApocalypse Tue 28-Jan-14 11:42:43

I applaud you Catherine, a really thoughtful response to ch 4 s awfully titled programme, it was indeed a missed opportunity.

rootypig Tue 28-Jan-14 11:57:06

Excellent column and response from sancti. The programmes fail to apply any interesting or creative analysis, as they would for other groups - a reflection of the lack of seriousness with which the working and non working underclass in this country is treated. I count myself among them!

Only caught the very end of it last night, but completely agree with your blog and fusspots post, surely we need to look more at the reasons behind situations, which are often very challenging?

rootypig Tue 28-Jan-14 13:09:10

Catherine or anyone - any good links to benefits analysis in terms of low income vs not working, and age related? Have looked at govt figures but lots is lumped in together, I can't make it out.

DandelionGilver Tue 28-Jan-14 13:11:04

I have only watched one episode. The one last week, and initially only under duress from my partner. I will openly admit that we both thought it would be about "benefit scroungers, living a life of reilly on our taxes" and were prepared to have all of our prejudices justified.

It didn't take long to change my mind. In fact, I found it upsetting and felt a huge amount sympathy and sorrow for these families who live in poverty and appalling conditions, through their own unfortunate. unwarranted and undeserved circumstances.

The young couple with the 2 small boys was unbearably sad. The young girl had conquered her drug addiction and they both seem to be doing the best they can without much support. The health visitor suggesting parenting classes and telling them they have to go online to find one and sort it out, without checking they had the ability to do so. Their upbringing showing in the way that they live. Seemingly being unable to cook healthy, nutritious food for the family and living in such a mess. When with a small amount of assistance and education they could improve the quality of their lives immeasurably. Their trials to encourage good behaviour in their children and to get them to go to sleep was heartbreaking, but they both seemed to be doing the best they could. And the poor chap going door to door trying to get charitable donations, and obviously with no training at all, hearing his sales pitch. And all for the grand sum of nothing.

Whilst we are not rich, we are fairly comfortable and this huge percentage of our society has gone unnoticed by us in our safe, comfortable and happy little bubble, which I believe is how a lot of our peers think. Or, rather, we just don't think about it.

We live in a town which is hugely affluent and I was surprised to learn just before Christmas that we have a food bank. That even in areas of affluence there are people who cannot afford to eat. I now donate a couple of carrier bags full of food every week - it is not enough. I also give all of my DDs outgrown clothes, shoes and toys to a social worker I know as she says they never have enough. But, what else can I do?

I would love to be able to help somehow, but don't know how to even start or who to approach (the foodbank do not require any more volunteers). How DO you help these families?

I feel chastened for my previous prejudices and have had my eyes opened.

Karenj1 Tue 28-Jan-14 13:42:53

Rent is not paid to the landlord anymore...only in certain circumstances where the tenant is deemed vulnerable.

That is why some of the people in this documentary had got into such arrears. They were given money for their rent and spent it on other things...they may have had very difficult decisions to make.

The state of many houses shown was indeed deplorable, if the rents quoted above are true I would be surprised, as there is a maximum that the council will pay in benefit on any given property based on number of rooms etc.

People in private rented housing may well be there because their past behaviour has rendered them ineligible for council housing. Landlords are not always ogres, they can only deal with what they know about and tenants may not tell them of problems until things deteriorate to the point where they are unbearable for them and expensive for the landlord.

Remember tidying costs no cash. Cleaning products are cheaper than cigarettes. Storing things in your bath makes it unusable.

Landlords have horror tales to tell too!

Karenj1 Tue 28-Jan-14 13:47:04

There will be a Sure Start scheme close to you, they sometimes need mentors to go into a home and help with advice about parenting etc, good luck with it

Owllady Tue 28-Jan-14 13:50:38

I am not surprised landlords have tales to tell either but as private renters we are subject to spot checks whenever deemed necessary ( which thankfully have never happened) and routine rental checks every six months or more frequent if necessary. Mould on the walls to the extent that were in the property that belonged to the mp would gave accumulated over a much longer period. I just don't know how with a responsible agreement how housing can be allowed to get in such a condition. I am even subjected to an oven door check! To make sure it's see through glass (which seems frightening impossible to achieve)
The conditions in which some of them, especially fungi, were appalling, squat like conditions.

Owllady Tue 28-Jan-14 13:56:22

Sorry it's the mirror and he wasn't an mp hmm

DandelionGilver Tue 28-Jan-14 13:58:38

Thanks Karenj1. I'll look into it. Why didn't I think of them? We used our local centre a lot when DD was small.

LayMizzRarb Tue 28-Jan-14 14:32:43

I realise that the programme is heavily edited, but some of the basic facts still shine through. For the chap who went to get a handout from the foodbank, then you must make compromises. Give up your mobile phones and cigarettes and you will have a bit more money to feed your kids. Although unemployment and low income is beyond your control, how you manage your finances is not. You have to help yourself. As for Funghi, instead of spending money on cans of special brew, buy a bucket and a bottle of detergent and get cleaning your house. It will stand you in much better stead when you next apply for access to your children.

bebbeau Tue 28-Jan-14 14:47:26

I watched it last night and fungi's house made me cry

how can a human be allowed to live in such a state sad

Preciousbane Tue 28-Jan-14 16:00:53

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

misskittycatkins Tue 28-Jan-14 16:09:50

He travelled to the food bank by bus rather than walk (£4.00) and if i'm not mistaken it looked like she got a taxi home with the food.

Owllady Tue 28-Jan-14 17:02:42

It was reported that the production team were buying them booze, fags, McDonald's etc though and I can well believe it. My friend appeared in another popular ch 4 series, and she was told she had to be character x and behave in a certain way and all sorts if stuff

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