(Mis) Understanding Benefit Street

Benifit street.jpg

Everyone’s talking about it, but what’s most interesting is not the show in itself, but the conversations people are having.

Suddenly the British public have become experts on the welfare state and have unleashed a tidal wave of opinion and judgement regarding the inhabitants of James Turner Street. Unlike many people, I have no problem with the show, however, it’s the conversations that really bother me, especially at 6am on the Central line when the overzealous rulings of the middle class are just too much to take. As I sat amidst the usual corporate zoo I overheard a gentleman (I use the term loosely) complain that the inhabitants of Birmingham’s notorious street should all get off their f***ing arse and get a job because he goes to work every day and he can’t afford all the luxuries they can. It took a surprising amount of self-control to avoid ‘accidently’ spilling his Starbucks coffee all over his T.M Lewin shirt as I walked off the train. Because in fact, there is a bigger picture here that so many people are completely failing to comprehend – we’re partly responsible.

People may be annoyed that Fungi or White Dee have not gotten jobs yet, but their situation is also a product of our system and the lives we lead. We’ve locked them behind the bars of a social prison and seem to have lost the key. We’re more than happy to treat our poorer classes as second rate citizens, dumping them in housing estates on the edge of town and essentially paying them to maintain those lifestyles. And the uncomfortable truth is that White Dee is actually better off not working full time, as opposed to claiming benefits. The system does not incentivise her to get a job when she could readily earn the same, if not more, at home spending more time with her children and friends. While we all gasp and pretend outrage, let’s not forget that little voice in our heads that is contemplating how nice it would be to not have to go to work every day.

Britain has always had a strong working class heritage which has unquestionably supported and helped shape the country. Many of the occupants of James Turner street, and similar residencies all over the country, come from families with proud working class traditions, yet those were families decimated by the loss of the shipyards and the mining industry. They were some of the people who couldn’t make the leap from industrial to technological revolution and so their children’s children now suffer. Initially never happy to stretch out the hand, they have become inured to it over the years as government has consistently refused to find a place for them in our developing society. The Victorian notion of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor seems to have come back into fashion as we sit in lovely house surrounded by everything we need to live – food, water, shelter, warmth – and dish out heaped servings of judgment. Just because we were lucky enough to be born into the right social class and were educated enough to understand and utilise the concept of ‘bettering oneself’, that doesn’t give us the right to damn other members of our society. There are so many judgements flying around these days and I’m getting whiplash trying to dodge them all. The residents of James Turner Street continue as members of our country and whether we agree with their work ethic or not, we remain responsible. A fierce backlash from politicians and charities has called for Channel 4 to remove the programme as it is ridiculing and demonising the poor. Yet despite a not always accurate representation, at least they are instigating a debate. Like Oscar Wilde once said ‘The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about’. This is certainly a subject that needs to be discussed and these conversations need to be taking place in order to prompt change in a country that has always prided itself as a welfare state.

The discussions surrounding our benefit system are long and complex and there is no doubt changes need to be made to support a class of people who are continuously being forced to the boundaries of society. Of course there are those who don’t spend their money wisely and take advantage of the system. My argument is not that every person who receives benefits are a shining paragon of perfection that has been misused and abandoned by the state, but the fact remains, a system that has allowed them to take advantage combined with a society that pigeonholes and demonises them, does not give us the right to sit lording out our damming judgements from the comfort of our sofas while we slap the label ‘chav’, ‘deviant’, ‘thief’ and ‘lazy’ onto the backs of everyone on benefits.

Salma El-Wardany