Carla McCormack, Policy and Parliamentary Officer blogs about the perpetuation of poverty myths by programmes such as ‘Benefits Britain’
Last night Channel 5 aired ‘Benefits Britain: Life on the dole’. The programme follows a number of young people who are in receipt of benefits.
‘Benefits Britain’ played a dangerous role in further stigmatisation of those on benefits, particularly young people. The young people in the show were portrayed as lazy, and not wanting to work. They were often filmed smoking, drinking or lying in bed. We know that many young people do want to work but those with complex and challenging needs often need more support to enter the labour market.
The programme referred to one single mother as receiving ‘£300 a week from taxpayers’ – a clearly divisive line. The programme also made references to mental health problems which almost implied they were not real illnesses at all, ‘all three suffer from anxiety and depression but that won’t stop them getting up to their old tricks’.
The language used throughout ‘Benefits Britain’ was clearly designed to make benefits claimants ‘different’ and divided people into skivers and scroungers. It asked us to make moral judgements about the way people on benefits spend their money and, in many ways this message was successfully put across. Comments on twitter showed that many people had a complete lack of sympathy or empathy for the people in the programme, or for people more generally in receipt of benefits.
“Joke!! These people .. Benefits should be all vouchers for food and then house bills and rent .. Stupid giving them money #benefitsbritain”
‘#benefitsbritain I see people on Jsa with huge TV, sky, latest smart phones etc.. get a job and pay for them you scroungers and some pride’
‘My anger #benefitsbritain is the absurdly generous welfare state that induces otherwise responsible people to sink into a life of lethargy’
Benefits Britain ignored the structural causes of poverty in Britain and the very real problems of young people who are in receipt of benefits.
In recent years, there has been a hardening of public attitudes to poverty, with more and more people wrongly identifying individual behaviours as being the cause of poverty. This is partly as a result of Government discourse but the media has to take responsibility for the dangerous and divisive messages it is spreading.
If the media is to continue to commission television programmes about the benefits system, then it has a responsibility to educate the public about what benefit levels actually are (and the fact that they aren’t high enough for people to reach the minimum income standard), how the welfare budget is spent, and the causes of poverty.
Finally, there needs to be a recognition that work does not always provide a route out of poverty for everyone. In-work poverty in Scotland is growing, with two in three children in poverty now living in households where someone works.
We need to smash poverty myths, not perpetuate them, so ‘Benefits Britain’ it’s time to Stick Your Labels!
 Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2012) http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/poverty-role-institutions-behaviours