Is benefits street leading us down the wrong path?

14th May 2015

As the controversial Channel 4 documentary returns, Alex Willmott asks whether the media paints an accurate picture of poverty.

The new series of Benefits Street returned to our TV screens on Monday night, with the cameras focussed on the residents of Kingston Road, Stockton-On-Tees. It was clear to see changes in the new series, as Channel 4 strives to position itself as a fair broadcaster.

Prominent themes in the first episode included caring for disabled people, applying for work, resilience, generosity and community spirit. And with Benefits Street presenting itself as a direct portrayal of what it means to face such challenges while living on benefits, it’s easy to see why so many people tune in.

However, some of the editorial decisions remained questionable. Early on in the episode we were introduced to Julie Young as someone who “had not been in work for 15 years”. It wasn’t until much later in the episode that we actually learned that Julie had spent these years as a full-time carer for her severely mentally and physically-disabled son.

One of the more unpredictable themes within the episode was the tension between Channel 4 and the national print media. In a series of bizarre encounters between the residents and the national press, the locals were very clear that they trusted Channel 4 with their stories, but felt the complete opposite towards the printed publications. One couldn’t help but feel that Channel 4 was integrating its own agenda into the show as the camera often moved from the residents onto the national journalists.

But the overriding issue in terms of this series, as well as in the last one, is that Benefits Street can quite easily encourage viewers to reach an ill-informed opinion of the wider benefits situation in this country. As my colleague Tracey Robbins explains in her personal experience of the benefits system: “We talk about ‘people on benefits’ as if they’re one homogenous group of scroungers, rather than a diverse group of people with a broad range of complex stories, abilities and needs.

“The majority of the people we’re talking about are, like everyone else, just trying to do the best with what’s available to them. It is not their fault that the systems set up seem focused on the urgent, not the important; on short-term outputs instead of long-term outcomes.”

With the episode focussing quite strongly on drugs, alcohol and large families, it failed to shine any light on the bigger picture of benefits today. Some of the wider issues that tend to be ignored by programmes like Benefits Street include:

  • More than half of those in poverty now live in a working household. 
  • The average housing benefit claim for those in work is higher than for those out of work, according to Department for Work and Pensions figures. 
  • Only 7 per cent of those who receive out-of-work benefits are estimated to be problem drug users and 4 per cent dependent drinkers.
  • Only 8 per cent of benefit claimants have three or more children. 

Storytelling, whether accurate or otherwise, has the power to influence audiences. As JRF Chief Executive Julia Unwin explains in her book, Why fight poverty?: “In 2010, 23 per cent of the public perceived the main cause of poverty to be laziness or a lack of willpower; an increase from 15 per cent in 1994.”

The need for individuals and communities in poverty to tell their stories is as important as ever. But as public perception regarding benefits is so changeable, there is now a tangible risk to those sharing their journey. And with social media playing an ever-increasing role in how we communicate our thoughts and opinions, personal stories regarding poverty can often lead to reputational assault, both locally and nationally. Headline writers know that poverty sells. This is something we need to be aware of as members of the viewing public as we tune into Benefits Street and similar programmes.

It is vital that our film-makers and journalists present an accurate picture of the causes and consequences of poverty so that public perception is as well-informed as it possibly can be. There is no doubt our media outlets have a right and a responsibility to share the stories of those at the coalface of poverty. However, without context, fact and a balanced narrative, a storyteller can quickly turn poverty into a spectator sport.

  • JRF have commissioned Full Fact to monitor the statistics and narratives used by the media and politicians to describe people in poverty and will be publishing the results later in the year. 
  • JRF works with organisations and individuals to support people in poverty to tell their stories. In 2014 we commissioned a series of documentaries showing life on the front line of the recession.