Few subjects are more unfashionable than British poverty. And judging by the reaction to Channel 4’s brilliant documentary Benefits Street, it seems as if the left believe that it ought not to be discussed at all. This five-part series focuses on the inhabitants of James Turner Street in Birmingham, which has 99 houses, the majority of whose inhabitants are dependent on welfare. For two years, a TV crew let the camera roll and Ch4 now tells the story – giving a complex, uncomfortable view of what life is like at the bottom in Britain.
The left’s charge is that the wicked media is ‘demonising’ those on benefits, portraying them as scroungers – then claiming this represents everyone on welfare. This claim is impossible to reconcile with Benefits Street. I can only assume that the show’s critics (or the minority of them who actually watched it) see demons when they look at these people. I didn’t. I was struck by the strength of community spirit and amazed how they managed to stay so optimistic in a street that seems to have been cut off (by the welfare state) from the rest of the economy. These are the people who have been abandoned for years.
White Dee, who describes herself as the mother of the street, is thoughtful, funny and warm-hearted. Next Monday’s episode shows how 14 Romanians come to live in a house built for four people, then find out they’ve been trafficked and having to work all day for £10. They run out of food and their Pakistani neighbour, also on benefits, comes to bring them some. Smoggy, another resident, goes door-to-door offers little sachets of washing powder for 50p. If his neighbours are too poor to afford it, he gives it away. Rather than “demonising” the residents, Benefits Street shows remarkable acts of kindness, neighbourliness and tolerance. ‘We’re like one big family,’ White Dee says. And that certainly comes across.
To me, the villain of the piece is a still-unreformed welfare system that has left these people in appalling conditions – so cutting them off from the rest of society that they do no seem to consider that work is a way out. And the real scandal is that they’re probably right. Another Channel 4 documentary, Benefit Busters, showed A4e, one of the government’s welfare-to-work contractors, doing brilliant work trying to build people’s confidence for job interviews. But in many cases, the subjects worked out that they would not be much financially better off in work.
The official figures bear this out – the below chart shows how the low-paid can keep as little as 5p in every extra £1 that they earn. Let’s take the example of White Dee, a single mother of two children. Here is how she is trapped by the benefits system:-
This is, in effect, a prison – and all too many people in James Turner Street (and many other streets like it) are kept in that prison. Britain has somehow created the most expensive poverty in the world. It is something that Iain Duncan Smith is trying to change, and the effect of his welfare reforms are seen in the show.
One character, who is claiming incapacity benefit even though he’s well enough to do odd jobs in the street, receives letter from the DWP offering him an assessment and a personal adviser helping him back to work. He takes the letter to White Dee, who tells him not to worry – she’d had such letters before, and nothing ever happens. That may have been the experience of the last decade, but things are changing now. And in a good way: with offers of help. Proper benefit reform is expensive: it’s not about saving money, but saving lives (as we say in the Spectator’s leader this week).
I have never worked out why the British left is so relaxed about life at the bottom, so uninterested in estates where children are brought up in areas where joblessness is so richly mixed with drug abuse and petty criminality. If you care about British poverty, as so many on the left say they do, why would you resent attention being drawn to its nature? Why would you not want Benefits Street shown?
Such programmes don’t appear very often because the subject tends to be a viewer-loser: British people don’t tend to like watching British poverty. We wear wristbands for the foreign poor, but not our own. When you hear George Osborne say he won’t ‘balance the budget on the backs of the poorest’ he’s always talking about the poorest overseas, not in Britain. The unreformed welfare state has turned deprivation into isolation – we have isolated the poor in places like James Turner St. In the name of compassion.
And while the BBC has a ‘public service’ mandate it’s Ch4 that has managed to draw the attention of a stunning 4.3 million viewers to what is – to my mind – the worst (and most-overlooked) social problem in Britain. This is what good journalism is about: bringing attentions to ignored problems, especially if those affected are those who normally have no voice. Then starting a debate.
Social segregation is creeping into Britain where not just the rich but even the middle class struggle to imagine what it’s like for those right at the bottom. The people who are, in effect, quarantined in these estates. Benefits Street has opened a window into this world – and yes, it’s shocking. But those who are shocked should ask: how can we change this system? What do we do? Switch off the TV and condemn the journalists who expose this – or decide that it’s unacceptable for anyone to have to live like this, and reform the system?
I disagree with Owen Jones, who says there is too much of this on TV. I don’t think there’s enough. The idea of an effective 95 per cent tax rate for the low-paid ought to be a national scandal: what kind of message is this sending to the poor? The message is simple: stay in your welfare ghetto, in your edge-of-town estate. You’re ‘hard to reach’ so we won’t be reaching for you – we’ll pay you, quarantine you and forget about you. And don’t dare come on our television screens.
Benefits Street has shown us the people that have been forgotten in this way – and they’re good people, who look out for each other. Entrepreneurial people, like Smoggy. But they are people who have been abandoned to a system that has scandalously little interest in (or ability to) use their talent properly. The waste of money, while appalling, is nothing compared to the waste of human potential.
Benefits Street is not poverty porn – it just opens a window into the world of the people that Britain is very good at forgetting. It ought to be compulsory viewing in the House of Commons, especially amongst those Labour MPs who would rather look the other way.