With politicians, media, and much of public opinion already framing welfare as a problem, what is the impact of television shows that claim to ‘expose’ the daily lives of claimants? Ruth Patrick draws on her latest book to explain the mismatch between such portrayals and claimants’ realities. She writes that while some of Britain’s poorest are being exploited for entertainment, the impact of those portrayals is anything but entertaining.
Ongoing cuts to social security provision take place against a context in which ‘welfare’ is continually derided. The use of the Americanisation welfare rather than social security is itself a linguistic device that operates to narrow our analytical attention (and critique) onto a small proportion of beneficiaries: those in receipt of out-of-work state support. Focusing on the ‘problem’ with ‘welfare’ neglects the extent to which the majority of us receive and rely on various forms of social welfare, with the social security system – properly understood – a system that benefits and supports us all.
Today, it is possible to speak of a framing consensus on ‘welfare’ that sees mainstream politicians, media coverage, and much of public opinion united in a view of ‘welfare’ as necessarily and inevitably problematic. This consensus creates a climate in which those who receive out-of-work benefits are assumed to belong to a deficit population. Claimants are then judged to require tough new measures to activate them from a passive state of ‘welfare dependency’ into paid employment, where they might enter the ranks of the much-lauded ‘hard working majority’.
As Tracey Jensen has argued, this characterisation of ‘welfare’ is bolstered and sustained by a ‘machine of welfare commonsense’. This machine – which can be visualised as a military tank careering determinedly forward and flattening alternative portrayals in its wake – is driven by mainstream politicians and the majority of the media. For example, we have seen David Cameron describe benefit claimants ‘sitting on their sofas waiting for their benefit cheques to arrive’ and tabloid headlines screaming: ‘Party is over for benefits skivers‘.
The recent explosion in ‘Poverty Porn’ – reality television shows that promise to shed light on the day-to-day lives of Britain’s benefit claimants and those living in poverty – is another important ingredient in the machine of welfare commonsense. Television shows such as Benefits Street, Skint, On Benefits and Proud, and even The Great Big Benefits Wedding and Benefits: Too Fat to Work invite the viewer into benefit claimants’ homes and day-to-day lives to watch how ‘they’ live. The observation of ‘them’ by ‘us’ immediately sets up and works with existing divisions between ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’. As the ‘hard working majority’ watch these very popular shows, they are able to see for themselves the lives and choices made by ‘welfare dependents’, the ‘other’, the ‘shirkers’.
While television executives defend their shows as providing a realistic account of life on benefits in Britain today, it is in fact a highly edited and sensationalised account, and one which mobilises stereotypical ‘images of welfare’. This is perhaps best characterised by the opening captions for the first series of Benefits Street, which featured sofas on the pavement, men on streets drinking cans of lager, and women smoking cigarettes on their doorsteps. This imagery neatly fits with a narrative that seeks to ‘other’ and problematise those who receive out-of-work benefits, but it is an imagery not necessarily aligned with the day-to-day realities of many claimants’ lives.
Over the past six years, I have been exploring the lived experiences of poverty and welfare reform, through repeat interviews with a small group of out-of-work benefits recipients. Following individuals over time, it has been possible to explore the extent of the (mis)match between the popular imagining of ‘welfare’ and everyday realities. The individuals I spoke to dismissed the notion of benefits as a lifestyle choice, and instead pointed to the very hard ‘work’ that being on benefits and getting by in poverty demands. Many of the individuals I spoke to watched shows such as Benefits Street, and were concerned about the dominant characterisation presented. As Kane* put it:
I watched Benefits Street, I think it were like ‘Poverty Porn’, that’s what you call it isn’t it. Basically trying to make them look like dickheads…I think people definitely thought they’re all scrounging bastards after that. I think that’s the reason they did it really.
Sam also felt uneasy after watching these shows:
I don’t like how [people on benefits] are portrayed. Sometimes I think the government leans on the media to show people in a negative light… [These shows] feed people’s negativity…[People] like their negativity to be fed because they need something to hate…it gives the rich and the upper and middle classes…something to hate.
Sam argued that ‘Poverty Porn’ serves a particular function by giving people “something to hate”. She felt that politicians are perhaps deliberately using such programmes to promote negative attitudes towards ‘welfare’, something also suggested in academic commentaries.
The research also found widespread experiences of benefits stigma, with individuals often feeling and talking very negatively about their own benefits receipt. Indeed, Sam self-described as a ‘scrounger’ even though she was a young care leaver actively seeking paid employment at the same time as setting up her first independent home. Benefits stigma included the experience of claims stigma, where the process of claiming and receiving benefits is itself imbued with stigma and shame. Here, Poverty Porn was also seen to be playing a role. Adrian described its impact:
Even the job centre advisers, they watch the shows. That’s how they view us, or that’s how they get told to view us…[They treat me] like I’m one of them people on one of them shows. ‘So, what have you been doing? Watching telly?’, they act like that’s what you do.
With the seemingly endless growth in ‘Poverty Porn’, the behaviours and lives of some of Britain’s poorest are being very successfully and profitably repackaged into light entertainment. However, its impact on those who receive out-of-work benefits support is anything but entertaining. By perpetuating a popular – if inaccurate – imaging of ‘welfare’, such shows undermine support for social security and enable politicians to continue their programme of ‘welfare reform’. A divisive climate of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is sustained, with members of the ‘hard working majority’ invited to judge and critique the lives of a ‘welfare dependent’ ‘other’. It may be an imagining that the research evidence contradicts, but it is one with far-reaching purchase and power.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
Note: the above draws on the author’s latest book For Whose Benefit? The Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform published by Policy Press.
About the Author
Ruth Patrick is Postdoctoral Researcher in the School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool.
Well said: Neil from Merseyside above particularly.
Now that Cameron is gone and Theresa is on her way out – well – all I can say is that the only answer to all this poverty, unemployment and inequality, is to get a Labour government in as soon as possible.
And – besides -. a Corbyn-led, NON-neoliberal, NON-austerity Labour government!! I can see why Milliband didn’t get in: he was too “milquetoast”, to use an American expression.
Pity Corbyn didn’t get in in 2017, isn’t it?? But he had an uphill struggle, the way the MSM is in this country, and with all the Blairites in his party undermining him.
Make sure you support him, and vote Labour whenever you can.
If we view the UK as Great Britain PLC, then it’s easy to see that what the class of producers receive in the way of wages, salaries, healthcare, education as well as the social security those who can’t find or are unable through to disability ‘profitable employment, (use, exploitation) receive, is on the cost, the debit side of the balance sheet, and as such is a drain on the life blood of commerce, profit.
Business has always been cut throat and in these times increasingly so, the fact that profit is essentially the wealth remaining after the cost of maintaining a class of producers has been covered is the reason behind not just the demonising of the poorest of us but all the cutbacks on our wellbeing.
We are not seen by those that employ (use, exploit, take advantage of) us as we do, an end in ourselves, but as a means to an end.
While “lazy” is an ambiguous term, I suspect that a reasonable percentage of working age people on out of work benefits are something akin to lazy. They could get a job, but the work would be unpleasant and poorly paid and they chose not to do it. I sympathise with this position quite a bit and this as fairly rational and reasonable choice – at least in the short-run. I lived in a house for a while with well educated people who all chose to live on benefits and not work.
There is some research to back up this position, but not sure if the vast majority of academics approach this topic with open minds.
I think the resentment towards some categories of working age people on benefits is generated by a sense that these people are in some sense cheating. Quite a bit of research on this – can generate an altruistic form of punishment. Don’t think that people on benefits are hated – that’s simply the wrong word here.
Not sure if we should think of people on benefits as simply victims, they are partly the authors of their own fate.
The issue raised about poverty and educational outcomes is not a simple one, but clearly income is only one of the factors. Look at the educational outcomes of Chinese children from the bottom income decile.
Completely agreed with the above views about the need to reduce inequality.
Then Patrick I would humbly suggest you haven’t a clue about life or the people that are on benefits. You ‘suggest’, which is a purely personal and objective term, that a ‘reasonable percentage’ of people on benefits are lazy. Okay, then please supply objective evidence to support this? However, this would be a tad difficult because anyone who has seen the actual figures for those not actively seeking work, knows that these people are tiny minority, and indeed the UK has among the lowest number of those the DWP sees as ‘not actively seeking’ work, of any nation in Europe. Further, if you knew anything about the benefits regime, which you clearly don’t, you would know every single individual claiming JSA has to prove, every week, and some people, if they haven’t work for some time, twice a week, that they are actively seeking work. If they don’t they are sanctioned. Now, call me cynical, but isn’t it tad hard to be enjoying the life of riley, with no money at all, for up to six months?
Again, if you had access to the figures, you would also know, that in areas like Merseyside, for every job opening they are massively over subscribed with applicants. Yet the area is tarred with the brush the author is discussing, ‘that people there are ‘workshy’, a myth I see you are more than happy to perpetuate. For young people in the area, as in the rest of the UK, getting, and more important, keeping a job, is very, very hard. Those who do have work are seen as ‘lucky’, and treated with envy by their peers. Lucky? To get work in the UK? Which according to the govt has jobs falling out of the sky? Yes, lucky. Jobs are scarce, good jobs even scarcer. Unemployment, while hidden by ONS (which has no legal obligation to produce accurate figures) manipulation, is still a major concern.
As for the rest, yes people on benefits are hated. The disabled are being assaulted, having also been tarred as ‘scroungers’ by the govt, people on JSA are called parasites, among other less charitable terms by people up and down the country. They have been effectively and efficiently demonised, despite the UK govts benefits bill, again, as EU figures show, being among the lowest in Europe.
Please don’t peddle the old, ‘if they got off their backsides they could get work’ nonsense. It’s both embarrassing and reflects badly on the individual that makes that claim. There are parts of Merseyside, that you literally, no matter how many quals you acquire, how many interviews you attend, no matter how many courses the DWP send you on, you will not find a job. Even teachers find it hard to find work in the area, never mind people with less quals and manual jobs as their only option.
As for poverty and education, yes there is a link as any teacher, in any poor area of the UK could tell you. Expectations are low, the parents own education impacts on the child, and for that child its a battle against apathy and and the knowledge that no matter how well they do – they still might end up on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle abuse them. You cannot use Asian countries as a comparator. Chinese families from poor backgrounds live in abject poverty so that their children can succeed – but then they expect those children to support them as a result. Try doing that in the, low wage, high cost of care, UK. At the same time, both China and Japan are looking at reforming their education systems as they place too much emphasis on ‘competition’, ‘success’ and ‘results’ and not enough on producing normal human beings. A major problem for Japan as their birth rate plummets due to socially inadequate young people.
I use Merseyside as my example, as I live here, I worked for the DWP here, my wife teaches here, I used to be a tutor here, and I have seen first hand as a tutor, young peoples, at times, desperate attempts to find work.
I would humbly suggest walking in their shows before demeaning people in a situation you clearly have no understanding of.
The whole benefits street anti benefits was enhanced but he social media certainly the twitter fields went wild the second it started with bile being spewed at a horrifying rate, if cameron with his for hardworking people mantra had a negative affect on those who were not working, after all anyone working considers themselves hardworking, benefits street hammered the nails in to the coffin of social care.
I do welcome this document that outlines the full political intent on using the victims to promote attitudes against supporting the vulnerable. We only have to go back to Dickensian times to see how the poor were vilified for lack of opportunities to escape the poverty created by a society that profited from it.
The attacks on our education system is also part of that agenda, poor people haven’t got the resources or the time to ensure their offspring get the support needed to properly educate themselves.
Neo-Liberalism defines by language how we perceive the world they want us to understand, but you only have to scratch the surface to find out how thin the veneer is between reality and pure fiction.
Poverty is a political agenda, well paid well educated people have independent thought, and that does not sit well with those that want to exploit people for their own ends, this also applies to those that are content to ignore the disparity among individuals, so long as they can usurp them to climb the greasy pole, thinking they can rise above the misery of others.
Never has Karl Marx’s views been more relevant than today, when he called on the “workers of the world to unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”.
People must understand that they are the real economy, and when they stop spending the economy fails, unless the government acts to compensate it.
I would love to read your book – For Whose Benefit? The Everyday Realities of Welfare Reform, but due to the price of Policy Press items and as a disabled ‘benefit scrounger’, this is not possible. Perhaps elink to cheaper options could be a possibility?
*Paupertainment* is the word I created for the subject above (apparently uniquely but I doubt that). I have been a *pauper* all my adult life, due to my health.
West England – An excellent description of a filthy practice.
Hopefully Ms Patrick’s book and research will eventually reach a wider audience and eyes will be opened to the injustices and cruelties perpetuated against those least able to defend themselves.