We need to talk about Benefits Street
The furore over the Channel 4 series shows just how poverty-stricken the debate about welfare has become.
The first episode of the Channel 4 series Benefits Street, a salacious documentary about benefits claimants living on one street in Winson Green, Birmingham, attracted an audience of over four million. Incredibly, it also prompted a petition signed by 25,000 people to have it taken off air on the grounds that it demonised welfare recipients, and a host of condemnatory articles in liberal broadsheets. The reaction is revealing: it shows that there is a gap between how ordinary people see benefits claimants and how the petition signers, commentariat and politicians see them.
Many of the articles complain that the show provides a distorted image of the typical benefits claimant. We’re told that despite their depiction in Benefits Street, not all benefits claimants are wilfully unemployable shoplifters. In fact, claim the critics, only a very small percentage of benefits claimants are even unemployed. The vast majority work and claim benefits or are pensioners.
And no doubt that is true: there are many people who work and claim benefits. But this differs from the common perception of the benefits claimant as someone who does not really work at all, someone who is not economically productive in any mainstream way. In the popular imagination, a benefits claimant is someone who lives off benefits. So why is the largely liberal commentariat so keen to label large swathes of people who do work as benefits claimants? The reason, I think, is that it helps those who want to emphasise the hopelessness of life in modern Britain to bundle together a large mass of people who, if they have nothing else in common, can at least be categorised as receiving welfare. It’s hard to see what this is supposed to achieve aside from satisfying some fantasy of a potential mass political movement of poor people.
This idea of there being a huge number of benefits claimants also helps political parties, none of which really wants to be seen as dismantling the welfare state. It means that they can show that the main problem facing society is the welfare bill, including payments to people who have been working, while simultaneously backing away from really tackling the issue on the grounds that changes will affect too many people. Ironically, during a speech given in Birmingham on the same day as the first episode of Benefits Street was broadcast, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, announced a proposed further £12 billion cut in welfare to be implemented after the next General Election. It was no surprise, given the current discussion of welfare, that Osborne’s ability to achieve this cut, even with support from his own party, was questioned.
One critic of Benefits Street argues that if you go looking for them, you’re bound to find criminals such as ne’er-do-well Fungi and his thieving friend Danny, but it’s wrong to suggest they represent benefits claimants. That’s correct. But, at the same time, you cannot ignore the fact that there are benefits claimants of this kind, and that their behaviour causes huge problems in the communities in which they live. Yet it’s not the criminality of Fungi and people like him that’s considered the problem by Benefits Street’s right-on critics. Instead, they’ve spent their time fretting about the potential criminality of the programme’s viewers. Indeed, one of the reasons given for petitioning for the show to be scrapped is that it will stir up hatred of benefits claimants in society at large. Admittedly, there have been some nasty tweets, but there is not a large baying mob of benefit-claimant beaters about to break loose. The fact that many critics think that a titillating documentary could provoke such a reaction tells us rather more about their condescending perception of Benefits Street’s mass audience than it does about the audience’s actual views. We need to be allowed to debate welfarism publicly, not to be told it’s too incendiary an issue for us to handle.
It seems to be very easy for broadsheet columnists to present benefits claimants as victims, despite claimants’ behaviour sometimes making victims of others. But this assumption — that benefits claimants are vulnerable victims — makes it very difficult to question and criticise welfarism without being accused of being a persecutor of the poor and vulnerable. Welfare is one of those subjects (immigration being another one) which politicians and commentators are allowed to talk about but which are considered off-limits to the rest of us on the basis that we might start picking on the putative victims. Real benefits claimants themselves need to recognise why they are being portrayed as helpless victims: because it allows politicians to pay lip service to the subject of welfare without really changing anything.
As for the inhabitants of Benefits Street, they don’t look like shaking off their sense of victimhood any time soon – they have now turned on the programme makers, claiming that they have been manipulated.
Rosamund Cuckston helps organise and run the Birmingham Salon.