When the Chancellor last year talked of people with “closed blinds…sleeping off a life on benefits”, I joked that he had mistaken the series “Shameless” for a documentary. “Benefits Street” now gives us the opportunity to watch “Shameless” but using carefully selected real people.
This is depressingly standard #liesaboutpoverty; some newspapers do it every day. The producers, now under pressure, are keen to point out that this programme is designed to be entertaining and cannot be in anyway representative of people on benefits.http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jan/12/benefits-street-richard-mckerrow-channel-4 What is appalling is that such a programme is, without irony, being cited in Parliament as justification for the welfare reform agenda.
Using entertainment as evidence
This exchange of views in Parliament on Monday is beyond parody yet I find myself agreeing with at least part of what Iain Duncan Smith says:
“If [you have watched Benefits Street] have you, like me, been struck by the number of people on there who manage to combine complaining about welfare reforms whilst being able to afford being able to buy copious amounts of cigarettes, have lots of tattoos done, watch Sky TV on the obligatory wide-screen television?” Phillip Davis MP.
“He’s right. Many people are shocked by what they see. But the reality is that is why the public backs our welfare reform package to get more people back to work, to end these abuses, and all of these abuses date back to what the last government left, with massive spending and trapping people in benefit dependency.” Iain Duncan Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2014/01/iain-duncan-smith-people-are-shocked-by-benefits-street-and-labour-will-thank-us-for-welfare-reform/
The Secretary of State is right: the belief that being on benefits is about tattoos, Sky TV, cigarettes and an obligatory widescreen telly is why a great deal of the welfare reform package is so popular. This view is also in almost every way possible false. It is worrying that the public believes such unpleasant things of their fellow citizens – it is a disgrace that our law makers do.
Ignorance: the key to welfare reform’s popularity
Later in the same debate IDS chose to highlight the undoubted popularity of the Total Benefit Cap of £26,000 per year. This measure, which limits the total benefit which can be received by a family to the “average” household earnings, represents a cut of approximately£185 million in the welfare budget, a tiny amount in DWP terms and around 1/100th of the overall benefit cuts. A recent IPSOS/Mori poll showed that it was indeed the most popular of the major welfare reforms but only because people believed it was the reform that saved the most money.http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3188/Perceptions-are-not-reality.aspx
People inaccurately believe that a large proportion of benefits goes to people who get huge payments. This belief is encouraged by press and politicians, it is key to the policy’s widespread popularity and is widely known to be false.
The report we published last year “The lies we tell ourselves” contains a large number of examples where such ignorance is encouraged and is key to garnering support for polices. It is telling that as benefit changes were announced, Ministers chose to paint benefit claimants as cheats – playing to another unfounded popular belief – using numbers which turned out to be false .
Benefit Street: Adding to ignorance
The programme is set in a street where few people are in employment. Channel 4 and the film makers, ironically called Love Productions, have defended the programme by saying that it isn’t representative of people on benefits . What they don’t admit to so readily is that it is not even representative of the people on the street. Just one example of this is that entirely predictably the majority of people on the street who aren’t in work are pensioners, the next largest group are the sick and disabled and after that are the unemployed – yet the programme equates benefits with those who are unemployed.
The producers’ other defence – that the programme “shines a light on poverty” and to criticise the programme is to say “we shouldn’t pay attention to poor people” – is risible. This particular exploitive light is daily shone on impoverished communities with an intensity that burns. Should the Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Star, and many of the broadsheets all close down, the Jeremy Kyle Show and think-tank reports declaring impoverished communities to be “man-deserts ” will allow that light to continue to burn all too brightly.
The programme was sold to residents as being about community spirit but its inflammatory title has both guaranteed its success and the notoriety of its participants. When challenged about this the producer suggests that “there isn’t enough aftercare for people brave enough to go on television”, in a manner reminiscent of a sniper complaining there aren’t enough trauma surgeons.
Knowledge: the key to good policy
There is a great deal of research done examining the lives of people who receive benefits. The DWP produces many excellent research reports which would allow a Minister to refute the “fags and a big telly” myth; academics produce a myriad of useful papers and reports; charities and other groups write up their experiences. Amongst all that a very few reports, usually from politically motivated think-tanks, come close to agreeing with these myths.
The reality the body of evidence describes is complex and not very entertaining. It describes some who buckle under, some who flourish and most who keep on keeping on. It describes an often dull existence which is neither wicked nor saintly, where people are trying to do the best for their family in difficult circumstances. Real research also provides clues as to the dull, politically uninteresting policies necessary to genuinely tackle poverty.
Polices which play to a nasty, unpleasant and demonstrably false stereotype are popular but that is no justification for making them law. Just leadership refuses to play to such prejudice. Just leadership is in very short supply and without it I fear for the well being of the most vulnerable.