Channel 4’s new documentary series Benefits Street, claims to reveal the reality for people living on benefits; however, is this series a true portrayal of life on benefits, or merely a money-making scheme that actually mocks the people living on James Turner Street in Birmingham, in an endeavor to gain higher network ratings?
The line between destitution and comic value is hard to decipher. Are people viewing Benefits Street in order to gain a better understanding about life on benefits and ultimately empathize with families having to survive on benefits? Or are they laughing as these people are turned into characters of a warped reality sit-com?
The residents of James Turner Street become symbolic of poverty; however, the light Channel 4 shines upon them is not always one illuminating sympathy, like that of the adverts for children suffering in places like Africa. Instead of promoting the struggles for the residents of Birmingham, the series has been criticized for playing directly into the hands of the anti-benefit rhetoric, proven by remarks made by Katie Hopkins – the she-wolf renowned for her sharp tongue and radical views, who referred to the residents unfavorably as “parasites sucking the blood out of your pet terrier.”
However, it cannot be argued that the documentary series show that benefits are not the road to a life of luxury at the expense of hard-working taxpayers. Many people on the street live in squalor and struggle to support themselves, let alone their families on the money they receive weekly.
The documentary also shows that not all residents want to live a life of unemployment. For example a man named Smoggy, also known as the “50p man,” buys and sells sugar and other household items all for just 50p in order to prevent him from turning to crime, and also to help his fellow community, despite many residents still being unable to afford such a small price. In the year 2014, jobs remain hard to come by for many people, especially people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Despite this, Benefits Street does show a mixture of people – many wanting to progress but needing some extra guidance. Below is a clip from the third episode.
Benefits Street has caused much controversy over whether it is a true portrayal of life and people on benefits, or simply a money-making scheme birthed for amusement. Journalist Sonia Poulton argues that Benefits Street mocks the poor, and instead of making a series on the residents of James Turner Street, Channel 4 should have turned the spotlight onto other sectors of society, such as MP’s, in order to find out exactly how much they are taking from the common person. Others have agreed, and believe that the real Benefits Street of the world is Wall Street.
In America, food stamp cuts are being enforced as a way to force people to get jobs. However, this type of radical bill is seen by many as the wrong way to make a change because it leaves millions of Americans at an endless war with poverty. Senator Debbie Stabenow argues that there are not enough good jobs out there, and that this Republican approach “is like saying we’re tired of spending so much on wildfires, so we’ll just cut the budget of the fire service. That isn’t going to work.”
Similarly, the toxic opinions like that of Katie Hopkins formed by the coverage of Benefits Street are not going to help inflict a positive change. Whether people perceive Benefits Street to be a true portrayal of life on benefits or a comic money-making scheme, makes little difference to the overall outcome. Unemployment rates remain staggeringly high, and documentaries like Benefits Street are criticized for turning benefits into a product to be sold. However, the 50p man has now been offered several jobs after being seen on the series.
Editorial by Melissa McDonald