Benefits Street has won me over

Greetings comrades! Apologies for the veritable dearth of posts during the last couple of weeks; I’m sure you have all been deeply upset by their absence. It’s mainly down to the fact that I’ve started a new job (the first week of which was an unmitigated disaster because I was a nervous wreck and kept bursting into tears like a big baby), coupled with the complete lack of my usual frothy favourites like Made in Chelsea to pontificate about.

However, I couldn’t let the final instalment of Benefits Street pass by without saying my piece, frightful keyboard warrior that I am. I’ve only blogged about the first episode, but I have been engaged in many a…errr…discussion, shall we say, about it since. The first episode unfortunately did its job – it sensationalised and demonised people who rely on benefits. However, it’s won me over since. The rest of the series has been, in fact, far more measured in its coverage, and featured, at times, quite tragic cases, but the first episode meant that the scene had been set for all of James Turner Street’s inhabitants to be labelled as scroungers.

Take Mark and Becky as an example. Members of their respective families have gone on the record as saying that both suffer from learning difficulties; however this has not been referred to during the show. Instead, they’ve been branded benefits cheats and had their parenting technique criticised, when it was plain for all to see that they did love their children, they just didn’t have a clue how to discipline them (the scene featuring the “Punishment Porch” made me wince) – and rather than being given support and a push in the right direction, they were instead humiliated on national television. Mark’s been labelled a scrounger for never having worked before. But surely his learning difficulties make gaining employment even more difficult? There was a scene where he attended a workshop to compile his CV. He had no work experience and barely any qualifications to speak of. Of course he is going to struggle to create a CV, let alone get a job. Even when he did find work and we witnessed him going from door-to-door in a smart suit, he didn’t earn a penny – it was commission only.

I’ve spoken to (ok, argued with) people who’ve sneered at the likes of Fungi who, despite relying on benefits, never seem to be short of booze or ciggies. Yet, if you look at the bigger picture, Fungi is a recovering alcoholic and heroin addict, who’s hinted that he was abused as a child, and is not allowed to see his children because of his lifestyle. He lives in squalor. He has had no electricity for eight weeks. Yes, he’s spending all of his money on alcohol and cigarettes. But this is not a man who is having fun at the expense of the taxpayer. I don’t watch his scenes and feel angry. I feel sad.

White Dee has been especially vilified as being a lazy scrounger. I think I read somewhere that she has been deemed fit for work and is now actually claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance after being a long-term sickness benefit claimant. But who are we to judge whether she was well enough to work or not before she claimed JSA, solely on the basis of about thirty minutes worth of footage in total? She said herself that she is on anti-depressants – not everyone is visibly ill. Plus she is clearly an intelligent woman, who cares about her neighbours, and who is instilling a work ethic in her daughter that would suggest that she doesn’t want her to follow in her footsteps.

Other people I’ve spoken to about it have said that they think it glamorises being on benefits. This train of thought leaves me, frankly, incredulous. How could anyone watch Benefits Street and think that it was a desirable way to live? Another said that they thought food banks were a joke; people getting free handouts for food “whenever they want.” I agree that they’re a joke – it’s a joke that they exist at all. I don’t think anyone would visit a food bank for a laugh. Don’t forget that people who work are having to rely on them as well. And food whenever they want? They’re only allowed three referrals in a rolling twelve months!

As I mentioned in my other post, I’m not for one second saying that there aren’t people who are abusing the benefits system or who are claiming and are committing crimes or being anti-social neighbours (and indeed, you only had to watch last night’s episode to see poor Ewan, one of the few employed residents of the street, trying to live a quiet life, with his Billy Idol vinyl collection, and failing.) My issue is that people are living like this and are being ignored. Danny, featured in the first episode, is in and out of prison constantly. It’s all he’s ever known. Are we supposed to think that that’s ok? Are we meant to ignore a deprived area, like Winson Green, and just leave it – and its future generations – to their own devices?

Next week the residents of James Turner Street are being given the opportunity to answer their critics and defend themselves. I am genuinely looking forward to it – I hope that they are given a proper chance to put their point across, and that it is edited fairly. I don’t think White Dee will pull any punches…

Channel 4’s Benefits Street made my blood boil

So, I watched a lot of television last night. We started off with University Challenge (I only got one question right; Mad Tam got four; David smashed it – fair play to the lad), then on to Celebrity Big Brother (half of them are sex-crazed; the rest are dull; Lee Ryan is in a criminally daft class of his own, and you know it’s bad when Liz Jones is coming across as one of calmer members of the group), and I finished up with Kerry Katona’s Channel 5 documentary, My Secret Past, about dealing with her bipolar disorder – very moving and well worth a watch.

However, the programme that really grabbed my attention was Channel 4’s Benefits Street, billed as a look at the reality of life on benefits, which focused on James Turner Street, a road in the Winson Green area of Birmingham where 90% of its inhabitants are on benefits.

I was appalled, frankly, by the whole thing – I haven’t watched such a manipulative piece of television in a long, long time. It was exploitative too – needless to say, the people featured on the programme have spoken of their anger at being misled about the objective of the series, and their concern about online death threats they’ve received. I half expected David Cameron’s name to be featured as an executive producer in the closing credits, such was the overwhelming stench of Tory propaganda around it. At a time when such scrutiny is on the welfare system, this hugely biased series quite clearly intends to portray it in a totally negative way, and, looking with dismay at the outrage about “doleite scum” on Twitter, it’s done its job.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not naïve enough to think that there aren’t people who scrounge, who play the system, who supplement their income on benefits through criminal means, who have no intention of ever gaining employment. But to solely focus on benefit claimants like that and attempt to pass it off as the “reality” of life on benefits is so very wrong.

I’ve been on benefits before too. Benefits Street did not portray what the reality was like for me, or for other people I know who have had to claim. I was only out of work for a relatively short period of time (five months) but it was without doubt the most soul-destroying process I’ve ever had to endure and one which I hope never to have to repeat. Thankfully, I was lucky in that I had semi-decent qualifications, so found work fairly quickly, and also my family ensured that I would never go hungry or go without a roof over my head. However, I’m still, years later, suffering from the financial repercussions of being on benefits for only five months. And I’m one of the lucky ones – I’ve found work, and my family would never see me go without. What about those residing in Winson Green, which has had the highest rate of unemployment in the country for the last eight years? They’re trapped in a vicious circle and the current system is going to do nothing to change things for them.

I eagerly anticipate a series featuring people struggling to cope with the bedroom tax, or those who are sanctioned for up to three months and have to live on hardship rates due to miscommunication between Work Programmes and Job Centres, or how about long-term Incapacity Benefit claimants, who have been deemed fit for work by the infamous ATOS medicals and have to claim Job Seeker’s Allowance even though they’re clearly not capable of doing so? Sadly, I think we’ll be waiting a long time to see the other side of this particular coin represented in the media.