Poverty Porn

Channel 4’s recent Benefits Street series sparked sensationalist coverage about individuals on benefits and is leading to a spate of similar ‘poverty porn.’ But what proportion of benefits go to the unemployed – and how common is benefit fraud?  Daniel Devine explores the issues.

Benefits protest: Picture Credit Byzantine_K

Benefits Street drew both an unprecedented amount of criticism and a large number of viewers. More than four million viewed the programme, yet it led to  hundreds of complaints and 60,000 signatories to a petition calling for it to be axed.

Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, cited the programme in the House of Commons in support of his welfare reforms. They were needed, he said, ‘to get more people back to work to end these abuses.’

Yet a wealth of research directly contradicts the claims made by both Iain Duncan Smith and these types of TV programmes. Their focus on extreme cases and the non-working poor gives a clear impression to viewers that they somehow represent the majority.

Anne Begg MP tells Society Central:

My main objection to the programme ‘Benefits Street’ was the name, which suggested it would be following the lives of people who in one way or another depended on some benefits for their income. I fear the programme played up to the rhetoric that all benefit recipients are cheats, scoungers, thieves and immigrants that come to Britain for our generous benefits. Had the programme been called ‘The Street,’ I think the reaction would have been different, as the behaviour shown would not have become intrinsically linked to the benefits system.”

Let’s look at the hard facts: just 2.57 per cent of the total welfare budget is spent on those out of work, according to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. This contrasts with 42.3 per cent spent on elderly people. Benefits to those on low incomes make up 20.8 per cent, with 11 per cent going into housing benefit.

Recent negative coverage appears to have fed negative perceptions of claimants in general. A report by the charity Turn2Us found people believed 29 per cent of all out of work claimants were fraudulent, when the actual figure was two per cent. Of those polled by the charity, 14 per cent thought the majority of claimants were fraudulent. The report also suggested that many believed welfare claimants were undeserving recipients of benefits.

The public seem to rely largely on the media for information on these issues, and as a direct result they end up poorly informed. A poorly informed electorate is likely to support poorly informed policies which, in turn, are likely to cause harm to the worst off in society.

The current political rhetoric has led to the targeting of welfare reform at the individual, and to little consideration of the bigger picture.  For example the focus on getting people back into work fails to address factors such as high rents , the lack of suitable jobs and the lack of educational opportunities, all of which contribute to poverty and deprivation.

Indeed, current rhetoric blames welfare for socially or morally corrupt practices: being on welfare is seen as a ‘bad’ thing to be. This will not result in reform that improves the situation of those in poverty.

If we stigmatise the poor, people will be less inclined to accept help.  The Turn2Us report also reported feelings of stigma from being in receipt of welfare among those whose claims were legitimate.  What happened to David Cameron’s well-being agenda, released after the 2010 election? Did it apply to those on benefits?

Television programmes like Benefits Street are both a symptom and cause of policy decisions which have a negative impact on poor families. As George Osborne announces another £25 billion worth of cuts after the next election, mostly from welfare, attention should be focused on the evidence rather than on misleading portrayals of poor families.

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