Benefit Street…where to start?!?

Over the last few month’s I’ve reluctantly moved away from writing opinion pieces, because while I really love writing them, I’ve been trying to take my blog in a different direction. In the past I’ve also received some nasty comments, and as someone that hates confrontation, this has prevented me from writing them.  Despite the fact that I really believe in my convictions, I often feel that my opinions are in some way lacking validity or intelligence, and it too has put me off writing. On this issue however, I can’t continue to bite my tongue.

Benefit bullying, scapegoating or demonizing, whichever you want to call it, is making this country a nasty place to live and I am really fed up of the right-wing media peddling the myths that surround it. So despite my reservation, I have to join the fight the back and it is therefore why I am once again writing this post.

Earlier this week Channel 4 aired it’s new benefit based show, crudely entitled “Benefit Street”. Based on James Turner Street in Birmingham, a street that unfortunately has a large number of unemployed people living on it, the show follows the characters around and gives an insight in to what life on benefits is like. But does it really do that?

Since the economic bust in 2008, the media and politicians have continuously sought scapegoats for the global economic crisis but too often the finger has been pointed in the wrong direction. We’ve had blame Labour, we’ve had blame immigration and of course we’ve had blame benefits. While the Conservatives have had a huge role in this myth peddling (they NEED to make cuts to the Welfare Bill you see, and to do that they need to make people believe it’s justified, a point I will go on to shortly), the media have relished in adding meat to the myths bones. There has been a plethra of TV shows dedicated to those on benefits, with many treating them as criminals for claim money they are due from the state (how bloody dare they?). Let’s say that those on benefits are in some way responsible for the economic crash (they aren’t but let’s pretend for a moment they are), we can’t also forget the role of the greedy bankers so where are the TV shows about them?The media, also known as the fourth estate, is supposed to watch over our political institutions and ensure they don’t misuse their power. Instead several of the big newspaper’s and TV shows have decided to take aim at us. As Owen Jones recently wrote in his Independent column, “a healthy media would challenge myths and prejudice, ours is determined to fan them”.

So back to this vile and pathetic attempt by Channel 4 to “add to the debate” and in the street they have chosen. you have the epitome of what the media has been trying to portray. There were thieves, there were unemployed and yes there was even one couple that had committed benefit fraud. You can only imagine the producers delight upon hearing this. Their tactic of course worked a treat, because twitter was immediately inundated with vile comments about the “vermin on the street”. Some people even offered solutions to the “problem”- “nuke them” one suggested and one believed they should “all be made extinct”.

Of course the show failed to point out several inaccuracies in it’s “documentary”, and instead chose to present it as the norm, a scene that might be repeated across the country. (Let me just tell you that I live in the Rhondda, an area of Wales that is pretty deprived due to a lack of industry and therefore has high levels of unemployment, and I can hand on hand assure you that I have never seen anything like that. People want to work but there is genuinely a lack of jobs.)

  1. The couple who had committed benefit fraud, are in a minority because only 0.7% of the benefit bill is claimed fraudulently. As a testament to whole successful the media’s portrayal has been however, many of the public believed it was more likely to be 28%. The millions that corrpurations and millionaires dodge each year is far greater, I don’t see Jimmy Carr or Gary Barlow being called scroungers?
  2. A survey also found that the public thought 41% of the welfare bill went on unemployed, it’s actually just 3%. As I said briefly earlier this is a reason the press would have you believe differently, the Conservatives want to cut the benefit bill. With the majority of the bill goes on the elderly and those on a low working wage, if these were demonised people would be pretty peeved so they have to find an easier target, and they play to people’s anger by pressing the myths that they know are incorrect.
  3. We seem to ignore the fact that many of those interviewed on the show had underlying troubles. The likeable Fungi, who has been addicted to a lot of substances an illness that he continues to battle, admitted that he was “messed about with as a child”. While the shoplifter Danny, admitted that he hated the life he was living and wanted things to be different to how they were. Far from demonising these people and forcing them in to a life of poverty, we should be offering them the help, not just financial but emotional and physically too.
  4. More people claimed benefits in the 1980s and 1990s than they do now.
  5. The Good. We should also be acknowledging the incredible community spirit that is demonstrated on the street. I also want to take a moment to praise the ex-criminal, incredibly loveable and innovative “50p man”. Smoggy, who has done some time in prison, is desperate for work but because has yet to find any, he has set up his own business. While his solution might be unique, his situation is not and he is amongst the MAJORITY that really want to work.

It might be hard for some of us to imagine, but there might come a time when we need the help the welfare state offers and in reality we are only a redundancy away from needing that help. If we continue to demonise these people in the way we are, write them off as we too often do and allow them to slip away, then the Welfare State will disappear too. It’s already starting too, and another term of this right-wing ideology driven government might make that a possibility. That would be a massive shame.

Speak Soon.

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