Benefits Street – wrong storm, wrong teacup

Benefits Street seemed to be causing quite a storm in the Graun and the title itself was provocative, so I decided to take a break from climate change and the cricket (England’s women lost last night, by the way, but they still only need one point to clench the Ashes) to see what all the fuss was about.

Where better to start than Nick Mirsky‘s piece in the Guardian?

We are more divided as a society than we have been for many years: between rich and poor, between those working and the unemployed, between the haves and the have-nots. In this climate I don’t think there is a more important job for programme makers than to record what life is like on the receiving end of the latest tranche of benefit cuts. In fact it’s not just important, it’s essential.

Fair enough, I thought. Anyone with half an ear to the wind knows that James Turner Street is not typical of England as a whole and it would be absurd to think Channel 4 wanted to suggest otherwise. We know too that the government’s record on benefits is shameful and its pronouncements a disgraceful amalgam of deceit and demagogy. But knowing the numbers is one thing, giving the poor buggers who are stuck at the bottom of the pile the chance to speak for themselves is another.

Much to my surprise, the comments in the subsequent thread were largely vitriolic, taking Channel 4 to task for unjustly exposing the participants to public condemnation. I followed up some of the posters’ links and among the saner and more articulate I found this piece by Owen Jones for the Independent:

This dross has left the public woefully ill-informed. Polls show that people on average estimate that 27 per cent of social security payments are lost to fraud, when it is just 0.7 per cent; that 41 per cent goes to unemployed people, when it just three per cent; and that the value of benefits are far higher than they are. Neither is the public aware that most social security spending is, rightly, spent on pensioners who have paid in all their lives; or that the Government’s freeze on benefits mostly hits working people. Large families are passed off as typical, even though just 190 out of the 1.35 million claiming an out-of-work benefits have 10 kids or more. A healthy media would challenge myths and prejudices; ours is determined to fan them.

Here is the world that is missing from our television screens. The poverty-wage-paying bosses and rip-off-rent-charging landlords milking our welfare state dry as we subsidise them with tax credits and housing benefit. The low-paid workers struggling along on in-work benefits and falling wages, who make up the bulk of Britain’s poor. The 6.5 million people looking for full-time work, in many cases sending out CV after CV and not even getting a reply. The £16bn worth of benefits unclaimed each year – benefit evasion, if you will – compared to £1.2bn lost to fraud.

Now, there’s a fine howl of rage! There’s nothing to argue with there — on the contrary we need more of it. And I confess I didn’t know that £16bn in benefits go unclaimed every year. The only thing is, Mr Jones has missed the point. “This dross has left the public woefully ill-informed.” Well, no, actually. Mirsky knows full well that the public is woefully ill-informed — because the fucking public can’t be arsed to look behind the inflammatory rhetoric of low-life such as Osborne and Duncan Smith.

I would suggest that the aim behind Benefits Street has nothing to do with the background numbers — Toynbee, Monbiot & Co have been hammering away at them for years but no one cares. No, this is a grunt from the bottom of the pile. Why the hell should they play by the rules when the rich have long since ceased even to make a pretence of it? Why should they think about anything other than number one and sheer bloody survival? This is about shoving smug, ignorant Joe Public’s face into the reality of what happens when you leave people with no way out. They go inwards — to the only community that actually means anything. Cameron’s Big Society has zero currency here. This is where it hit the fan a long time ago. This is where they really are all in it together.

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