Real Benefits Street – the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV – you can help more people to tell their stories

Real Benefits Street finishes next week – and it’s had a real impact, challenging stereotypes and making many more people aware of the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV. Thousands of people have watched the video stories made by our real experts, and they’ve been shared widely on social media. We’ve received many, many messages expressing solidarity with the experts – and support for this project and its aims.

“Aside from giving practical support to very vulnerable people, you are doing something so important – you’re giving them a voice, and giving a little balance to the awful lazy stereotypes that are served up as universal truth by almost all our media. I was once unemployed for a year – it was terrifying; I was lucky enough to have the support of my family, but otherwise I’d have gone under.  I’m not optimistic we will see any closure of the gap between rich and poor under the new government, and that makes organisations like yours so important.  Please, please keep going.”

As we prepare to close Real Benefits Street  with some powerful final messages from the real experts, you can still help more people see the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV. Keep sharing our videos – make sure you’re following us on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. And watch this space for news of ways you can speak out about the injustices that people face daily when they’re supported by benefits.

And Real Benefits Street won’t be the end. We’ll carry on working with these experts – and with other people who are struggling to make ends meet – to make their voices heard, and campaign against the injustices that trap them in poverty. If you’re able to make a donation to Church Action on Poverty, you can help make sure those voices carry on being heard. Just fill in your details below to give now.

BBC to do ‘Benefits Street’ – why are TV producers so obsessed with the myth of the undeserving poor?

Church Action on Poverty’s Communications Manager Liam Purcell sees something ahead that’s even worse than Benefits Street: 

It seems clear that the producers of Benefits Street had a clear narrative in mind for this second series: the old lie of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’. The two focal points for every episode have been Neil Maxwell – who appears to deal drugs and was arrested in this week’s episode for assault – and Julie Young – who cares full-time for her disabled son.

Never mind that Maxwell is an extreme example, whose life bears no relation to those lived by the vast majority of people who are supported by benefits. Never mind that a civilised benefits system should provide a safety net for everyone. Never mind that it’s completely inappropriate to make moral judgements on other people’s lives based on the content of a TV programme that has been edited to produce maximum emotional impact and publicity. The audience is encouraged to see everything in black and white: some people are deserving of our generous support, while others deserve nothing. The effect of this was very clear in the reactions on Twitter, where many people described Julie as a saint while writing off everybody else on the programme as “scum”.

The narrative of the undeserving poor has been with us since Elizabethan workhouses used shame and stigma to punish some poor people and threaten others. It has always been divisive and harmful. It has never been an accurate reflection of reality. It shifts the blame for social evils onto the people who suffer their effects.

So it was depressing to read today about the next piece of poverty porn being planned by TV producers. The headline “BBC to pit low-paid against each other in Hunger Games-style show to find Britain’s Hardest Grafter” should have come from a satirical website, but unfortunately it’s reality.

The show will make people on low incomes compete against each other in different “blue collar” jobs. The whole concept is rooted in the most ignorant and destructive myths of the deserving and undeserving poor. The publicity materials talk about making the participants “prove themselves” and “show their worth”.

In a time of economic crisis, austerity and high unemployment, it is frankly abhorrent to claim that young unemployed people – those suffering the worst effects of cuts and recession – somehow have something to prove. Isn’t it time that our society showed its worth by offering support, solidarity and compassion to vulnerable people, rather than exploiting them for entertainment?

How to listen to the real experts

Church Action on Poverty’s Communications Manager Liam Purcell has been working to promote Real Benefits Street over the past week. He calls on all of us to show more empathy and less judgement:

Through Church Action on Poverty’s work to make true stories of poverty heard more widely, I’ve become familiar with some of the typical ways people respond to hearing those stories. I think it reveals some worrying things.

I’m not talking here about the terrible myths and stereotypes which stigmatise people on low incomes – the kind of things we set up Real Benefits Street to counter. (See here for some examples of the kind of hateful reaction that would fall into this category.)

My concern here is more for the instinctive reactions I see from people who are otherwise very sympathetic – even amongst Church Action on Poverty’s own supporters. People may be fully committed to tackling poverty in principle, but when faced with a story honestly shared by somebody who is experiencing poverty, their immediate reaction is still too often to judge rather than just to listen and learn.

“I’m not earning much more than that, and I get by OK.”

“Why does she need a car?” (Or a computer, or a mobile phone, or a TV, or a pet…)

“When I was young, we went without all kinds of things and didn’t say we were poor.”

“He shouldn’t be smoking or drinking.”

There are simple answers to the vast majority of these criticisms (and you can find most of them here if you want) – but I can’t help feeling that it’s a waste of time and energy for us to be answering them and busting the same myths all the time. In many cases, the answers are actually quite obvious, as soon as you take a moment to empathise and put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.

So why do people so often react in this way? I think that often, it’s a defence mechanism. It’s very uncomfortable to see another human being exposing themselves by honestly talking about difficult experiences they’ve had. It’s also uncomfortable to be faced with the reality that we live in an unfair society – and that perhaps, we ourselves are doing well at the expense of those who are less well off than we are. Our instinctive reaction is often to find an explanation that’s less personally uncomfortable for us – a story that distracts us from the problems, and doesn’t pin any blame on us, or challenge us to do something about an unjust situation.

So, as our Real Benefits Street experts continue to share their stories every day, I have some challenges for all of us who are watching and listening:

  • Be aware that these people are doing something brave and difficult. It’s not easy, in an unequal society, to stand up in public and talk about being poor.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes. You can’t fully judge an experience, or know how you would react to it, unless you’ve been through it yourself.
  • Do you have the right to pass judgement on somebody’s lifestyle? For example, if they didn’t happen to be on a low income, would you ever feel you had the right to tell a stranger whether to smoke or drink?
  • Before you pass judgement on any aspect of their story, ask yourself: by reacting like this, am I letting myself off the hook? Am I focusing on one detail while ignoring other aspects of the story? Is it a way of avoiding my own responsibility for tackling injustice and poverty?
  • Take time to reflect. In particular, remember that thousands or millions more people may be having similar experiences to the one you’ve just heard about. Does that change your reaction?

If we’re to build a Good Society with a narrower gap between rich and poor, we must always start from a place of solidarity and empathy – not judgement.

‘Benefits Street’ will never truly represent those on benefits

Our friends at the Who Benefits? campaign have given their response to the first episode of the second series of Benefits Street, which aired on Monday evening,. Here’s the statement from Tom Pollard at Who Benefits?:

We are pleased this series has more focus on the reasons behind why people rely on support from benefits, for example because they are living with an illness or disability, or caring for loved ones.

But by using the title Benefits Street, Channel 4 continues to create the misleading impression that this is a series that presents a realistic portrayal of the lives of people supported by benefits or issues that affect only those on benefits. This is not the case.

By focusing on a small number of provocative and extreme stories, Benefits Street ignores reality for the vast majority of people supported by benefits, who like many of us at some point in our lives; just need a little extra help to make ends meet.

The reality is that hundreds of thousands of people face discrimination and even verbal and physical abuse simply because they are supported by benefits and by reviving the controversial Benefits Street format, Channel 4 is contributing to this discrimination.”

Read positive stories of support and share your story of benefits

(You can also see our analysis of the reaction to the episode, and some press reviews.)

Benefits Street episode 1: the reviews

There were some interesting comments in yesterday’s papers on the first episode of Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Here are some selected excerpts:

“Love Productions has gone out of its way to become Kingston Road’s best mate. And to show its residents in a favourable light. Yes, they might be poor, and on benefits, and facing further cuts and sanctions. And it might be a bit loud and a bit boisterous sometimes. But look at the community spirit, you don’t get that in Chipping frigging Norton, do you.”
Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

“At times, it was irritatingly self-absorbed. Lengthy segments were devoted not to the residents of this short, low-rise street on a council estate, but to the journalists who showed up there to report on the furore caused by the programme. All of this was an unnecessary distraction from a series that remains, despite the pejorative title, pretty fair.”
Tom Rowley, The Telegraph

“In their quest for 15 minutes of fame these instant celebs spend the first ten flashing their knickers to attract the cameras and the next five protesting about unwarranted Press intrusion. It’s pathetic.”
Christopher Stevens, Daily Mail

Benefits Street does make space for much-needed context but it still seems disingenuous of the show to declare itself entirely innocent. Lest we forget, this programme provides the press with the necessary fodder to demonise benefit claimants, then sits back and enjoys the resultant ratings.”
Ellen E Jones, The Independent

“It felt like the moment when Angus Deayton had to leave Have I Got News For You because he had become the story. I wondered if Benefits Street had suffocated its own formula by revisiting it too soon. However, as we know, TV thrives on characters and on conflict, and again both were here.”
Andrew Billen, The Times

Benefits Street: promoting hate

Church Action on Poverty staff watched Benefits Street Episode 1 last night, commenting on the programme and sharing our own videos on Twitter.

As expected, the programme was edited in ways that promoted harmful stereotypes of people who receive benefits. Julie Young, a full-time carer for her disabled son, was described as “unemployed”. Every woman on the programme was described repeatedly in terms of how many children she had, feeding into stereotypes of unemployed people having large families. Large amounts of the programme were devoted to scenes of drug taking and other illegal behaviour.

This is not just an inaccurate and unfair portrayal, which does not reflect the reality of life for most people who are supported by benefits. It has a terrible impact on public attitudes to people on low incomes, and builds popular support for damaging cuts to our social safety net. This is shown very clearly by the comments below, which were all shared on Twitter while the programme was being broadcast.

(Warning: many of these tweets contain language which you may find offensive.)

Benefits Street: the stigmatisation begins

Channel 4 announced last week that the new series of Benefits Street, filmed in Stockton-on-Tees, will start being shown on Monday 11 May. 

Church Action on Poverty set up Real Benefits Street to counter the stigma and misconceptions which are promoted by the media sensationalism around TV programmes like Benefits Street, and to enable people receiving benefits – the real experts – to tell their own stories.

The new series of Benefits Street  has not even started yet, and already, it has prompted news stories and social media discussions that stigmatise and dehumanise the people taking part. Channel 4 have chosen to promote the programme by highlighting scenes of drug-taking and illegal behaviour. The participants have been described in national headlines as “a parade of addicts and scroungers”.

Church Action on Poverty’s Director Niall Cooper will appear on Radio 4’s Sunday programme on 1o May, talking to a representative from the company who produce Benefits Street about the impact their programme has on vulnerable people.

And from Monday 11 May, the real experts will be telling their own stories on Real Benefits Street. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube to see the reality that doesn’t make it onto TV.

Benefits Street – the reality of life on benefits?

Channel 4 and Love Productions, the makers of Benefits Street, regularly claim that their programme “reveals the reality of life on benefits”. But we work alongside people on benefits every day, and they don’t recognise their lives in the stories that are shown on screen.

This is not a criticism of the people who take part in Channel 4’s Benefits Street. Neil Maxwell, Julie Young, Lee Nutley, Dot Taylor and other residents of Kingston Road in Stockton-on-Tees have been brave and honest in telling their stories – just like ‘White Dee’ and other residents of James Turner Street in 2014.

But the way those stories are edited, produced and promoted in Benefits Street is sensational and insensitive, fuelling hatred and prejudice. People who took part in the first Benefits Street received death threats. The residents of Kingston Road are already being described on social media as “addicts and scroungers”.

Real Benefits Street aims to disprove the claims made by Channel 4 and Love Productions. This is the reality of life on benefits – told by people sharing their own experiences, without distortion or sensationalism.

Click here to meet the Real Experts and watch their stories.