Benefits Street – the latest programme in a marathon of poverty porn

I don’t usually watch programmes like Benefits Street. It isn’t good for my blood pressure. I know what programmes like that are going to contain, and I don’t like it. But I made the mistake of watching this one, mostly because I want an excuse to moan about the very culture of these types of television programmes in a structured way. Below is my letter to Channel 4 on why these programmes are not representative of those claiming benefits, and why fuelling such stereotypes is dangerous:

“Dear Channel 4,

Benefits Street, the latest programme in a marathon of “poverty porn”, about residents claiming benefits on James Turner Street in Birmingham, seems to have provoked two polarised opinions, yet both equally outraged. There are cries of disgust from those who appear to believe that everybody who is in receipt of welfare is somehow unworthy – or even worse, worthless – along with cries of disgust from those who believe it’s unfair to stereotype all benefit claimants in this way. I fall well and truly into the latter camp.

Too often, people I engage in debate with over benefit “scroungers” proclaim that I’m wrong – statistics are wrong – because they know so-many-people who have done this, or so-and-so knows someone who did this. Let’s not work on anecdotes and assertions here; we all know – including you – that the people you portrayed on this programme are not representative of the wide variety of people who use the welfare system. How can you claim that your programme was “fair and balanced”? After all, you didn’t show any old age pensioners on your programme, which I found strange – surely when doing any programme about benefit recipients, you would want to acknowledge the majority of the bill is spent on pensioners, at a cost of over £74 billion?

Programmes like Benefits Street are designed to stir up hatred and divide communities between the rich and the poor and, more dangerously, the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. I’ve sat and listened to people I know, who claim benefits, attacking other people who claim benefits, because of programmes like yours. They are designed to set sections of society which face the same problems – the same inadequate housing, the same lack of access to services, the same unemployment issues and, where there are jobs available, the same low-paid work – upon each other, in a race to the bottom.

Nick Mirsky, your head of documentaries, suggested that the programme had “touched a nerve”…and he’s not wrong. It’s touched a very raw nerve, and it’s provoked intense anger at the idea that claiming benefits – or, dare we use a much more accurate term, social security – is something to be ashamed of when it’s that money, however paltry it may be, which keeps people alive and roofs over children’s heads. My thoughts are drawn back to the heartbreaking case of Mick Philpott, where the Daily Mail claimed that he was the “vile product of the welfare state”. It was an abhorrent case of right-wing media cutting something down to size so it fitted in with their agenda, where “man on benefits” somehow meant “man is evil”, further fuelling the (incorrect and damaging) notion that people on benefits are not just normal, everyday people. Whilst an extreme case, it’s yet another example of just how easy it is to stir up hatred against people on benefits, when, often, the only thing they’ve done wrong – and are demonised for – is to dare to be poor.

Let me use an example: I represent the incredibly deprived ward of Devonport, in Plymouth. There is a high take up of benefits in the area. There are some residents in my ward that David Cameron would have you believe are “workshy”; people that the right-wing media would declare “scroungers”. Successive governments have failed to solve many of the problems which exist there; whilst the last government plunged millions into the regeneration of the area, and many residents who have previously lived in poor standard housing will now have the opportunity to live in much better conditions, the issues remain the same – high levels of unemployment, low levels of educational attainment coupled with a high number of adults with a lack of literacy of numeracy skills, and huge health inequalities, not to mention, as the most deprived ward in the city, a 12 year difference in life expectancy compared to their western city counterparts.

These people are poor. They don’t live the lives of luxury that the Daily Mail would have you believe they do. Many of them live in real poverty. Programmes like yours suggest that people, like those that I represent, claim benefits for the fun of it; they fool people into believing that people on benefits genuinely have it easy. It would be wrong to avoid the fact that some people fraudulently claim benefits, but with less than 1% of claims estimated to be fraudulent, those people are as unrepresentative of the welfare system as those you presented on your programme.

If you wanted to be representative, you could have perhaps mentioned the £16 billion amount of benefits which go unclaimed every year, or even, perhaps, benefit take up amongst those who are in work. In your programme, White Dee, who, by the way, is utterly brilliant and reminded me somewhat of my sister-in-law, makes a flippant comment about being able to buy Fairy washing up liquid because “she’s on benefits and works” – and she’s not alone. 60% of people living in poverty are in work – that’s a hideous figure, and it should set alarms bells ringing when work doesn’t pay you enough to live without a government top up.

Whilst your programme clearly brought out the worst in some people with death threats towards people in the programme, it’s the residents of James Turner Street who try to bring out the best in each other. If you strip away all of the social issues which these residents face, there is a community there; the kind of street I wish I had grown up on, where everyone knows each other and supports each other (under the watchful eye of White “Mother Hen” Dee).

Despite growing up in a poor, single-parent household, I don’t know what it’s like to claim benefits. My mother was too proud to ask for help. In fact, she would probably view needing to claim benefits as a failure. I don’t. I know that should I ever need it, the system will be there for me – and I won’t be ashamed to access it. And I pay my taxes every month so that other people can do the same. It’s odious to demonise entire communities of people based on whether or not they claim benefits, turning neighbours against each other based on how much money they receive every month.

I would ask you not to continue to make or broadcast programmes like this, but why would you stop when you have so many people on the edge of their seats, eagerly awaiting the next instalment of benefit bashing? I would ask you to at least acknowledge how unrepresentative of those on welfare programmes like this are, but why would you do that when that doesn’t bring ratings? What about a quick disclaimer pointing out that HMRC estimated in 2011/12 that tax fraud and error outweighed fraudulent welfare claims by some twenty billion pounds?

Instead, I’ll use this opportunity to pitch an idea for a different documentary to you – how about one about the amount of tax that companies like Starbucks and Amazon get away with not paying? About how if they did pay their taxes, we could wipe out the entire welfare bill? I’m sure you could think up a witty title for it, Channel 4. You’re good at that – “Benefits Street” was a real corker. Alternatively, I could extend an invitation to Nick Mirsky to come and visit my ward and witness the actual reality of benefit claimants, the real, devastating impact of the poverty which often comes from living on benefits, and on the breadline. Your choice.

Kate”

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