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?