Comment | No 'benefit' to anyone

You might have noticed that critics and fans have been raving in equal measure about Channel 4’s recent series, Benefits Street. Whether you tuned in to watch or recoiled at the premise of the program, it certainly got people talking.

Benefits Street was wrong on so many levels: from peddling false messages about a culture of benefits, to encouraging people to view people living in poverty as a form of evening entertainment, the producers of Benefits Street have a lot to answer for. But as shocking as this program was, what’s worse is that it wasn’t that out of the ordinary. Time and time again we see people who rely on state benefits being ridiculed and demonised by the media and we shouldn’t put up with it.

The main issue with Benefits Street is that it presents poverty as entertainment, which is completely wrong. Putting people who rely on state benefits on reality television encourages us to sit back and ridicule them while distancing ourselves from the fact that most of us are only a redundancy away from relying on state support ourselves. The program shamelessly attacks those who are destitute and voiceless in our society and drives a clear wedge between those of us who can afford to get by without state benefits and those of us who can’t.

Channel 4 often claims to be innovative and ground-breaking and likes to think it has a voice in major political debates, yet looking far and wide for the most outrageous examples of the unemployed and showing them in a negative light adds nothing to the debate around state benefits. Channel 4 aren’t being innovative or ground-breaking here, they’re simply fuelling common misconceptions about benefit scroungers as a quick way to boost up their ratings.

It’s clear that there is a stigma attached to people who rely on state support which is fed by government narratives and the media. While scapegoating the poor may seem like a quick get out clause for the government, it’s clear that they haven’t taken the time to understand what it’s really like to struggle to find work or afford basic living costs and have to rely on state support. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt by the government or the media to tackle the root causes of poverty and unemployment. When people make fun of people on benefits, they’re essentially laughing at people because they haven’t had the same opportunities and life chances as the rest of us.

Demonising people on benefits is done to make people believe in a false dichotomy between taxpayers and benefit claimants. In reality, the two are not separate. Many of us will claim state benefits at some point in our life; we may need to claim unemployment benefits after we graduate or need some state support if we fall ill later in life. Programs like Benefit Street encourage us to think that all people on benefits are permanently lazy, work-shy and uneducated, when in reality people on benefits come from all sorts of different backgrounds. For most people, being on benefits is a temporary necessity rather than a permanent lifestyle choice.

Using benefits claimants as the scapegoat to society’s problems is exactly what this government wants us to do. In reality, there is a serious unemployment crisis in this country. And it’s not because people don’t want to work, or because their too lazy it’s because the government simply isn’t doing enough to create jobs. Lapping up reality TV programs like Benefits Street only helps fuel these dangerous and offensive stereotypes about some of the people who are most in need of support in our society.

Alice Smart

Image: property of Channel 4

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