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.
Posted on: Mon 27-Jan-14 22:41:49
(57 comments )
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
Also- thread hogger but why not- internet at local libraries? Seriously?
Rural poor, anyone?
Library closures? Bus charges to reach them?
Hubby is working, low paid but working- we still get some HB. his business is an online shop / hire company.
Sure the local library would be happy for him to sit there several hours a day on their solitary PC dealing with that!
Ebay as well is a major way people on low incomes get by, buying and selling; many libraries ban ebay. Yet it's a good place to start a business we've found.
My smartphone cost me nothing - had been with my provider donkeys, and I don't have an expensive contract.
It allows me to share info with DH who is also a carer, schedule hospital appointments and school reviews etc as we are rarely in the same place.
It allows me to receive and respond to emails from NHS and school even if the kids are in hospital. I can order scripts on it, order the groceries etc.
I don't see that as a frivolous luxury. For us they're a much needed tool. Carers uk have even developed an app for the the things carers need.
and it probably now comes free with a pay as a you go package.
i have a 'smart' phone that i got free with a contract several years ago and is now fuelled by an eight pound a month contract that covers all of my calls and texts and allows me a certain amount of time online that i don't tend to use because i have broadband at home that only costs me eight pound a month. staying with the mobile company for eight pound affords me the discount that makes my broadband so cheap.
so for sixteen pounds a month, let's say three fifty a week, i have all communications paid for and access to educational material for my child and entertainment and social contact for me. a book costs at least five pound, a dvd at least a fiver, a bus ride to the nearest library to use their internet four pound fifty. sounds like a bargain to me given it opens up the whole world to me and my child.
i also find that being online saves me a fortune on school uniform and shoes, household goods, work clothes - in fact EVERYTHING as prices are so much cheaper online and not only are the prices in shops higher but i'd have to spend £4.50 to get to them (not to mention they're mostly closed down in my town now and placed on out of town retail estates that require you to own a car to get to them).
incidentally i work but am still fully able to empathise and understand this stuff.
one thing i find bizarre on here is that often the most benefit bashing outraged posters turn out to be sahms who don't work or pay taxes themselves. nothing wrong with being a stay at home mum of course but most bizarre that they are so outraged by others finances given they don't pay tax or go out to work themselves.
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