The strangest thing about Benefits Street is that it is not about benefits or even a street. We’re told there are nearly 100 houses in James Turner Street. We see about five. And the predominant problem is drugs. The most shocking thing about the program is that Iain Duncan Smith is reported to have claimed it in aid to justify his program of cuts in the welfare state. If he really believes this claim, he must be desperate to justify his ill-informed policies.
A real program about ‘benefits street’ would in fact show 100 houses with 42 people living on the state pension, 15 would be sick and disabled (many of whom would be old). Those on job seekers allowance–the unemployed–would be less than three. And nearly 20 would be families with children, mostly in work, but on such low wages they cannot live on what they are paid. (10% would-be landlords living elsewhere but benefiting considerably from housing benefit.)
Turning to the programme, we get a long section on two drug addicts who, extraordinarily, allow themselves to be filmed stealing, one of whom is arrested and ends up in prison. We The reality is that the research worldwide shows that more unequal societies experience more crime, mental illness, violence, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug addiction etc. And the UK is now one of the most unequal countries in Europe. So inevitably we have numbers of people that fulfil these statistical realities, and they tend to be concentrated in areas of undesirable housing. see a household of likeable Romanian men, committed to work to support their families who are crudely exploited and frightened by their gangmaster. Sadly the police – who have improved greatly in Ladywood in recent years – are unaware that they could help by reporting the case to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. We see a young white couple, struggling with a hyperactive child, who had apparently over-claimed benefits in a period of separation. I found them likeable and have little doubt that if we knew the story of their parenting we would understand some of their difficulties. It was sad to see the father dressed in his suit, delighted that he had a job, working hard, knocking on doors to raise money for a diabetes charity and ending up being paid nothing. And then there is the centrepiece of the film: a large woman who smokes and swears an awful lot, who cares for her two children and is on antidepressants. I gather that various others with walk on parts have been arrested for drug dealing since the program was aired.
People who live in the street and were not depicted in the film have said that many of them work and live respectable lives but they were not wanted for the film. Many say they were misled about the purpose of the film and understood it was supposed to be about community and multiculturalism. No doubt hundreds of hours of filming of people doing normal things was thrown away in order to produce this concoction. And it is also likely that the people in the film played up to the cameras thinking they had at last found a little of the ‘glamour’ of celebrity for which so many yearn.
How could such a programme produce 5 million viewers? It seems to be another example of the voyeur, ‘big brother’ phenomenon, but this time with the twist that it is supposed to be about the real lives of those on benefits, which justifies the audience in thinking that it is right to look down on and them and even to be cruel to them.
The reality is that the research worldwide shows that more unequal societies experience more crime, mental illness, violence, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug addiction etc. And the UK is now one of the most unequal countries in Europe. So inevitably we have numbers of people that fulfill these statistical realities, and they tend to be concentrated in areas of undesirable housing. There is no doubt that lack of work and dependence on benefits reduces people’s dignity but the Joseph Roundtree Trust has recently shown that, contrary to the stereotype, there are a very small number of households with more than one generation out of work and that all aspire to the dignity of work for their children. The explanation of the size of the UK benefit bill is largely our ageing society and the fact that we have such a lot of very low-paid work so that large numbers of people in work with children are dependent on benefits.
But overall, having watched these programmes because they relate to my old constituency, I concluded that they are crummy misleading programmes but that even amongst the most disreputable people of Ladywood, there is a spark of likeability and hope that means that no one should be written off.