A walk up Benefits Street

In a time of austerity, in which cuts are made to public services and millions are out of work, Benefits Street premiered on Channel 4 on 6 January claiming to “reveal the reality of life on benefits, as the residents of one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets invite cameras into their tight-knit community”. However, Benefits Street represents nothing more than ‘poverty porn’ which allows benefits claimants to be stigmatised, labelled as scroungers and generally looked down upon. And it worked. Looking at the social media response to the initial episode under #benefitsstreet, which was helpfully flashed onto the screen before and after every advert break, the level of pure hatred to those featured was shocking. Particular highlights included death threats, uninformed opinions and vile language.


Since the airing of the programme, the residents of James Turner Street have told the Birmingham Mail that they were tricked into appearing on the show under the guise of showing community spirit. Further to this, a working couple living on the street were allegedly cut from the show after it emerged that they did not claim benefits.

So can this show be seen to be promoting an unhealthy stereotype, similar to the outcomes of another Channel 4 programme Big Fat Gypsy Weddings? The format for these types of television shows is now very familiar. In the case of Benefits Street it begins by television producers finding the most unsympathetic examples of people who claim benefits. They then go on to portray them in unflattering situations and follow by reinforcing a message that is heard relentlessly already. “They have edited everything to suit their own needs – taken a positive and turned it into a negative,” says Dee Roberts, a support worker who featured in Benefits Street.

It is revealing to look at the figures of a TUC poll relating to misconceptions about welfare. On average, people think that 41% of welfare payments go to unemployed people, when in fact it is only 3%. Fraud is also overestimated, with people believing that 27% of claims are fraudulent; the true figure is just 0.07%. Finally, it is believed that 48% of people go on to claim Jobseekers Allowance for more than a year, in truth this is 27.8%. Overall, when polled the public believed that an unemployed couple with two school-age children would receive on average £147 a week in Jobseekers Allowance. This is more than 30% higher than the amount they would actually receive – £111.45.

The real ‘scroungers’ who should be featured in documentaries are the true criminals of modern Britain; where are the shows about the wealthy tax dodgers who neglect paying the £25bn worth of tax a year? Or the bankers who plunged the world into economic crisis and continue to be paid large bonuses? Or the MPs who in the same week that Benefits Street launched were considering an 11% pay rise? However, for now, we should work on not judging an entire section of our population based on six specifically selected cases in a dramatically edited hour long show.


About Author

geriscott With a blood to caffeine ratio of around 50/50, you can usually find Geri in the media hub nursing a cup of tea. After writing for the newspaper for every issue in her second year, Geri will now be balancing her final year of her Politics degree with running Concrete and working in the Union House reception. She is also the President of the Concrete committee.

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January 2022
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