The response after the first episode was unbelievable. Social media exploded with disgust at the ‘scrounger lifestyle’ those on James Turner Street seemed to be enjoying. Those unlucky enough to have been featured on the show were bombarded with abuse and death threats. People blamed the welfare state for giving too many ‘hand-outs’. Shouts of ‘scum’ and ‘get a job!’ filled Facebook and Twitter. All of this was on the very day that George Osborne announced his plans to cut £10million from the budget for welfare spending. All very convenient; let’s just nicely cover up this horrific news with a poisonous programme that at worst will merely justify the need for cuts.
What ‘Benefits Street’ neglected to show is the thousands upon thousands of people who rely on benefits simply to survive. The single mother who is faced with skipping meals so her child can eat, the man who spends all day, every day pitting his job application forms against hundreds of others, the pensioner who faces choosing between heating or eating, the family wondering how the hell they’re going to afford to pay the Bedroom Tax- for these people, benefits are crucial for them just to make it through another week. This is the reality for so many in Britain. If ‘Benefits Street’ was ever serious about producing a truthful account, the demographics included would have been entirely different. By far the largest proportion of welfare spending in Britain goes on pensions, to people who have paid in to the system for all of their lives. 20% goes on supporting those who are already in work, but earning so little that they are well below the poverty line. Why was this not represented? Because ‘Benefits Street’ would prefer to show a distorted version that riles the general public as opposed to a hard, unpalatable truth.
The most damaging thing about ‘Benefits Street’ and its parody of life in working-class communities is the way it is designed to turn people against the poor. Shortly after the first episode aired, some of those who were filmed spoke out about the lies the production team had fed them. They had agreed to take part in a show about community spirit and togetherness. There are rumours that the cans of beer and cigarettes seen in the hands of those on the show were provided by the production team, which, if true, is a disgusting way to enforce the stereotypes it was seeking to portray. But that’s the whole point; the producers of ‘Benefits Street’ had the opportunity to put across any message they wanted to. When faced with false promises, skilled editors and no voice of their own, the residents of James Turner Street never stood a chance. So many of them have spoken out about how their lives have been ruined by the show, with abuse being hurled at them in the street and family members disowning them. It’s all too easy for people to blame those on the programme for their situation- one tweet I saw said that, as we all receive an education in this country, there’s no excuse for not being able to read or write, and thus get a job. However, if at twelve years old, you’re going to school hungry with an unwashed uniform, worrying about whether your parents will be sober enough to function when you return, doing your homework probably isn’t at the forefront of your mind. Everyone is where they are in life due to a huge range of different circumstances. To judge, or to tar everyone with the same brush is more than unfair, it’s dangerous.
So, when I consider who I’m really disgusted by in the ‘Benefits Street’ controversy, it is the vile, immoral production team who are at the receiving end. To create such a harmful, prejudiced account requires a lack of a conscience and a vindictiveness that turns my stomach. In my opinion, there is no better place to be than in the middle of a working-class community. And it is heartbreaking that one twisted, distorted representation can shape so many opinions of what it means to depend on benefits.