Coffee House

Benefits Street: Viewers divide as the community draws closer together

20 January 2014

10:18 PM

20 January 2014

10:18 PM

A change is in the air across Britain. A new divide is opening up: not between the rich and the poor, nor indeed the poor against the poor; but instead between those on both ends of the political spectrum who remain outraged at the depiction of the impoverished on ‘Benefits Street’, and the increasing millions that are glued to their screens actually watching it.

The economically inactive are, as irony would have it, proving an extraordinary success for Channel 4.  It shouldn’t be surprising – it was after a noisy week of petitions, protests, and pugnacious press pieces that the viewing figures rose from an already impressive 4.1 million to 5 million.

And it’s not just the media who are stoking this: ‘Benefits Street’ is a programme filled to the brim with ‘watercooler moments’, the foodstuff of office chitchat, thus guaranteeing that the only way to keep up with what’s being talked about in the workplace is to follow the lives of people who don’t go anywhere near one.

These moments are talking points because they do not articulate a Labour or Conservative point of view of how things should be. They do not label the programme’s subjects as scroungers or even as strugglers. They simply present matters as they are in a memorable way, and rather than ‘demonising’, as some on the left have charged, these moments paint a human face on people who have been otherwise shunned by our society. Rather than preaching one way or the other, these moments give us a rare chance to understand their situation as they see it, and apply our own individual interpretation onto it.

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Moments such as the ones where Mark and Becky attempt to maintain their unusual status on James Turner Street as a couple who stay together in order to raise their family, attempts that bring them hurtling against the innumerate brick walls of a harsh reality: the difficult world around them, their undeveloped life skills, their lack of money, their inability to find a job that pays, and the ever-looming threat of social services that they fear might take their beloved children away from them. (They’ve barely stopped being children themselves, as scenes of 22-year-old Mark performing skids on his mountain bike serve to remind us.)

Moments such as the one where 28-year-old Sam, a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, phones up the family of her estranged young child, begging to speak to him again, only to be cut off mid-conversation.

Moments such as the normally effervescent street matriarch ‘White Dee’, in an unusually downbeat mood, being asked by producers to identify the nature of the prescription drugs she was taking, pausing shiftily before giving the politician’s answer ‘my medication’, followed by another awkwardly long pause between both parties until she confessed her sad and all-too-predictable truth: ‘anti-depressants’.

And a telling moment that I recognised all too well – a resident greeting a passer-by on the street in the middle of the day, only to be reciprocated by a scowl. A moment which hints towards Birmingham’s social divide – a divide that explains why the passer-by feels entirely justified in scowling.

Birmingham is, by its level of population, officially classed as Britain’s second city – but in many ways, it’s a tale of two cities. There’s the city where people you pass on the street greet you with a smile and a jolly ‘good morning!’, and the city where even your attempts at pleasantries are reproached with indifference, if not downright anger. This divide is not a geographical one. It is a split between those you see walking around before half eight in the morning, and those you see after ten. In other words, those who get up every day to go to work, and those who don’t. The wealthy city versus the welfare city.

It’s easy to see why the man on the street chose to scowl. I was recently told that it’s hard for jobless people to make friends with someone who’s in a job. I’d go further than that and say it’s hard for someone who’s been long-term unemployed to make friends with anyone at all. These are typically people with an underdeveloped skill set to begin with, who don’t have money to splash out on their friends, have lost a large degree of self-respect and feel an enormous sense of anger at a system that they feel has let them down. The worst aspect of all this is a perpetual sense of shame that dogs them every time a new acquaintance attempts to break the ice with the seemingly innocuous, ‘what do you do?’

All in all, it’s a mindset that makes such people very hard to be liked. I would be very surprised if White Dee were the only neighbour who’s been prescribed anti-depressants; being long-term unemployed is enough to make the best of us feel permanently down in the dumps.

Yet the people of James Turner Street show that it is possible to make friends in the most difficult set of circumstances – the forces of adversity can bring people closer together.

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Show comments
  • Shorne

    The makers of this programme and Channel 4 must be delighted about the Left-v-Right ranting about this as it probably ensures more people watch it (up 800,000 for last episode and thus beating BBC and ITV for the 9pm spot) and thus makes it’s advertising space more attractive.

  • Makroon

    I don’t know why anyone should be surprised by the high viewing figures, after all, Dead Enders on the BBC has been drawing millions for decades covering pretty much similar ground.

  • manonthebus

    ‘These are typically people with an underdeveloped skill set’. These are the people who were happy enough to be farm labourers or council labourers about fifty years ago. Those jobs no longer exist. Society has changed but many have been unable to change with it. Education is the only way to solve this particular problem, and that isn’t working as well as it did.

  • London Calling

    Its easy to be quick to judge……..Benefits Street has been a real eye opener,,,,,,stuck in the system………..I wish them all a better future……………:)

  • Agrippina

    Mark and his son appear to have the signs and symptoms of someone suffering from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Amongst other factors: failure to thrive
    developmental delay
    poor coordination/fine motor skills
    poor socialization skills, such as difficulty building and maintaining friendships and relating to groups
    lack of imagination or curiosity
    learning difficulties, including poor memory, inability to
    understand concepts such as time and money, poor language comprehension,
    poor problem-solving skills
    behavioral problems, including hyperactivity, inability to
    concentrate, social withdrawal, stubbornness, impulsiveness, and anxiety.
    They really should not have gone onto have a 2nd child when they were barely managing with the boy.

    Then we have Big Dee who says she is the mother of the st. Hardly, as she is not much of a mother to her own 2 kids. Her house is messy, she does not work perhaps she could tidy up, it may improve her mood. I haven’t seen her cook, with little money the kids have been down to the cafe, costly. She shouts and swears then punishes the boy for copying her behaviour. She practically wrenched his arm out of its socket by yanking him down from the wall and shouting at him re: his bike. Perhaps she could go with him to the park and a walk may lift her mood. Or read to him or colour a pic with him. Mothering isn’t producing a child and sitting smoking all day. These folks need some guidance and work it may help them all out of their situations.

  • Reconstruct

    Probably not worth commenting but in an idle moment after lunch . . . . . there is a divide opening up in Britain between those who watch such stuff as Benefits Street and the rest of the population. The time is long past when any TV program, let alone any faux documentary, would be the subject of conversation down the Dog & Duck (if still extant).

    Rather, these programs seem simply to provide fodder for the echo chamber which is our media/political circle. Nothing really to do with anything, but it might be good for a few hundred words. Might be good for an outrage-storm.

    Meanwhile, . . . ‘altogether elsewhere,/ vast herds of reindeer move across / miles and miles of golden moss, / silently and very fast’.

    • Tom W Huxley

      ‘Benefits Street’ is proving a rare exception to this. I don’t move in a media/political circle (alas). It is all anyone is talking about around me.

  • Daniel Maris

    It’s wrong to suggest that “nothing can be done”.

    The key to all this is threefold:

    1. Ensure there is a job guarantee (that kicks in from age 13 or 14 – in the sense of a job being identified) for all young people. Allied to that, introduce a statutory duty for all able bodied individuals to support themselves.

    2. We have to completely break the link between early pregnancy and access to welfare goodies like flats and so on. There are various ways to do that. It needs to be allied to a clear expectation that women contribute for five years through work and NI before they can access child benefit.

    3. Paxman’s idea of returning to some form of national service is a good one. A lot of these young people need to be taken out of their environments and exposed to new experiences, new ways of thinking and living.

    • Bert

      No 3 is a good idea but should work both ways.
      The privately educated young are increasingly living in a bubble and protected from anything outside of their peer group even at University. They too should be aware of the other side of life.

      • outraged

        Training of the elites involves interesting set of philosophies and skills. The nihilism and how to explain shooting to protesting civilians are the order of the day.

    • Alexsandr

      how do you guarantee a job. who creates these jobs. Non jobs like YTS in the 70’s. Labour has been silent on where these jobs come from and who pays.

      • Makroon

        They come from the “benevolent state” , and you pay.

  • @PhilKean1

    Does anyone actually bother to look at and either edit, or bar comments?

    • Roderick

      Would it be churlish to point out that your comment is off-topic?

      • @PhilKean1

        LOL.

        This one is. Cheeky. But the one I tried to post has failed to materialise – possibly because the censor only wants to allow views which sit well with her personal political demeanour.
        .

        • James Strong

          Try it again, but maybe your post had some words that trigger a red flag?
          I don’t think there’s much political censorship here, some lefties and nutters get through as well as ‘UKIP for Rennard’ types.
          Having said that, I always put my comments about ‘communities’ and the RoP in a sort of code because I’m not confident they would get through otherwise.

          • Alexsandr

            some very innocent words are automatically blocked. As are posts with loads of links.

        • Tom W Huxley

          More likely a software failure. It happens. Try again?

  • WatTylersGhost

    Watched the final 10 minutes last night with my 18 yr old son, he’s off to a smart uni in September, skiing in the Alps at half term, cricket all summer etc and I could not help but see the contrast with the life chances ahead of the people in the programme. I despise welfare and the damage that it has done to millions, but I could not help feeling “There but for the grace of God go I”.

    These people are trapped, both by the system and their own idleness, lack of opportunity and ambition.

    • southerner

      Very nicely put Wat, particularly the second paragraph. It is indeed a combination of all these things you describe at the end of your comment and those of us who work and have families whilst living in comfortable houses would echo the sentiment at the end of your first paragraph.

      • WatTylersGhost

        Thank you. Most friends describe my politics as being a little to the right of Attila the Hun. Perhaps true. Hard right politics is often accused of lacking compassion which is unfair. Most reasonable people wish for the best for all, it’s just that we promote different ways of getting there.

        • southerner

          We are in the same club. That is why I get so frustrated with pretend conservatives like Hookey and his mates campaigning for Ted Heath II Cameron.

          • Nicholas chuzzlewit

            James, Wat, Southerner, I think we are all pretty much on the same page here. Sick of the sanctimonious left and their hatred of anybody who disagrees with them and contempt for so called conservatives so ashamed of themselves that they submit to a leftist agenda.

        • James Strong

          My politics are also right wing, but then I have to explain that I have no objection to different races, different sexual practices, etc. because that is how the right is mis-represented.
          I would like everyone to be well-off, with satisfying lives and rewarding occupations; but I don’t think a welfare state is the way to get there.
          (Having told you about my benign saintliness it is only right that I should tell you that I have a deep and passionate loathing for the RoP,but it’s not prejudice because it’s based on experience and evidence.)

          • HFC

            RoP?

            • James Strong

              Religion of Peace

            • HFC

              Thx JS

    • Andy

      As Iain Duncan Smith has discovered it is the Benefits System which traps them in idleness. It makes them poor and keeps them poor. But so many on the Left like it that way – gives them a ‘client base’ and makes them feel good ‘helping the poor’. IDS is doing what he can, but the reality is we need much more radical reform of the welfare system.

      • Alex_Cheshire

        “IDS is doing what he can”? All IDS is doing is cutting benefits, he is hitting the poorest of our society hardest. We have couples living on £112 p/w, who for health reasons cannot get an employer to take them on, but have been deemed fit to work by ATOS. He has not helped these people at all. He just demonizes those at the bottom and provides no practical help whatsoever.

        • MikeBrighton

          If those health reasons are valid then ATOS’s judgement should be appealed. But ATOS determines this couple (without me knowing the detail) as capable of work, then they are?
          This is not demonizing those at the bottom, but surely a rational judgement of the work capability of those claiming to be incapable and hence how the welfare system should support them.

          • Alex_Cheshire

            One of the problems with the ATOS assessment is that people in their late fifties and early sixties are judged fit for office work. Even though they have never used a computer in their life. Realistically they are never going to out compete those with years of computer experience. If they cannot do the heavy work that they have done in the past, then what do they do?

            • MikeBrighton

              I do understand how difficult this is but…if they are judge fit for work then they should work; in this case office work. I understand that someone in their late 50s or early 60s is going to find it tough to complete with more qualified people and immigrants (thanks to Labour) but given the rate of job creation in the private sector I really find it difficult to believe that they cannot find any form of employment, however hard on them that seems.
              The point here is that they are not incapable of work so they should not be entitled to IVB wich is designed to provide additional support for those sadly incapable of work.
              They should be on JSA and receive the support there (however patchy and I would imagine deeply inadequate) to find employment.
              Let me be blunt the work-capable want to be on IVB as it pays slightly more and there is no hassle to find work and be interviewed, attend CV classes etc. But the state is bankrupt, we simply cannot afford to pay people to do nothing.

        • Andy

          Oh don’t talk such utter crap. IDS is not demonising any one. You should ask yourself how it is that someone was able to come here from Romania and find a job in less than 24 hours, then find another one just as fast. There are people who have spent their whole lives on Welfare. And let us also face a few facts here. Welfare has crept up the income scale because the Labour Party and fellow lackeys (such as yourself by the sound of it) were busy buying votes. I have met IDS and I have a great deal of time for him. He has studied the problem far more than anyone (perhaps even more than Frank Field) and is trying to reform a system that traps people in poverty, dependancy and idleness. Reform, reform, reform that is what we need.

          • Kennybhoy

            “Welfare has crept up the income scale..”

            Indeed. I recall a few hereabouts were scalded by the child benefit reforms.

            • Andy

              Yes well Child Benefit ought to be axed.

          • John Lea

            Well said, Andy.

          • Alex_Cheshire

            Yes there are those who are fit and healthy who can make more on welfare than they could reasonably expect to earn, and I have no problem capping benefits. However there are also those who have worked for forty years, suffered health problems and are let down by the system. These are the ones which I feel are suffering unjustly under his clampdown.

            • Andy

              Changing tack now I see, since the IDS is a meany bit didn’t get you very far. And now you have ‘no problem capping benefits’, but that was not the impression you gave earlier. Why don’t you just admit what we all know – the whole welfare state is rotten to the core. It needs radical reform and what you should be concerned about is how this rotten system destroys the lives of so many.

              • Alex_Cheshire

                No, my position is consistent. The changes in welfare have hit the poorest hardest. Take for instance the requirement to pay part of the community charge. For those on the lowest incomes it is a higher percentage of their income that for those receiving a high level of benefits.
                Yes I agree with you that the benefits system is in a mess and needs reform, but changes which hit the poorest hardest are the wrong way to go.

      • MikeBrighton

        It doesn’t just “make them feel good helping the poor”, more importantly than that it employs the left in large numbers to run and administer the system through a wide spectrum of civil service, local government, Quango and NGO jobs…all running the welfare system and ministering to the “poor”

        • Andy

          Yes indeed. Which is why we need radical reform.

        • Kennybhoy

          Pushers.

      • Kennybhoy

        Yup. Welfare is an addiction and left-liberals are pushers.

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      Well said Wat. I would not be surprised if you spoke for many in this regard. I warched the last programme and there is no wonder that the ‘Left’ is foaming at the mouth on this one (that idiot Owen Jones must be catatonic). Itseems to expose their entire raison d’etre as a complete and morally destructive failure and a fraud. They have in effect condemned ordinary British people to a life of hopelessness. The ‘Left’ believes it has an absolute and unbreakable monopoly on ‘caring’ and moral rectitude and with their sanctimonious hypocritical piety, programmes such as this must send them running towards the nearest cliff.

      • Alexsandr

        how trapped? they are a 10 minute bus/tram ride from one of the great UK city centres. Is it so hard to go there and look for work.
        And there is still industry in the w mids.

        • Nicholas chuzzlewit

          Understood. These are not the most readily employable people you are ever going to meet but more importantly, they will be worse off by taking low paid work than if they stayed at home and did nothing. As Fraser Nelson pointed out, working can produce an effective tax rate of 91% for some of these people. Who would work on that basis save for some sanctimonious leftist hypocrite who pretends to love paying tax.

          • Tom W Huxley

            Especially someone who has children to look after – when spending time at work leaves less time to look after them.

          • MikeBrighton

            Nicholas see my comment above. The staggering withdrawl rate for benefits when someone starts working over 16 hours (the 91%) is not an unforseen consequence. The system is actively designed that way so as to deter the poor exiting the system through almost insurmountable barriers.
            A friend of mine has split from her husband taking her kids and moved into rented accomodation. She immediately went part time cutting her hours of work to 16 so she did not lose the benefits and housing benefits she needs. She was working full time before! Again this is not a unforseen consequence but the system is actively designed that way.

            • Nicholas chuzzlewit

              Agreed Mike and thank you for the real life example. What we need is someone to stand up to the left and effect changes which will let your friend dare to aspire and improve her standard of living and that of her family through her own efforts.

        • MikeBrighton

          Look at the level of immigration into Birmingham. Most have move there for a job

      • MikeBrighton

        Nicholas – I’ve realised that the left really could not give a monkey’s about the poor.
        If they do then why have they encouraged mass immigration displacing the poor from low income employment onto welfare through competition (I recall no commentator of the left perhaps with the noble exception of Nick Cohen raising this point, nor any union raising this point), and why did they remove the starting point for the tax system, the 10% band? Much as I dispise Cameron I do credit him with raising the tax threshold which has helped low income earners far more than Labour ever did.
        The “poor” are two things for the left
        1) Vote fodder – vote labour for your benefits, tax credits etc with no questions asked. The scales fell from my eyes watching a different programme on “the bedroom tax” and the lady going around dealing with social tenants commented that most of her “clients” seem to assume Labour will get back in and then things will be good for them i.e. the reduction in benefits will be immediately removed.
        2) Employment. The welfare system provides mass employment for the left, its fellow travellers and clients through the civil service, local government, charities, quangoes, NGOs etc all to run and administer the vast welfare system. The welfare system spend £220Bn in 2013…that level of spending needs a heck of a lot of people to run it!
        They kid themselves that they “care” but if they did then they would be doing everything they could to get the poor into employment not parking them on welfare and warehousing them into sink estates which no-one outside the welfare class or the people who run the system (and the police) ever see.

        • Nicholas chuzzlewit

          A good summation of the left’s pious hypocrisy and sanctimony. They care only for themselves and their democracy of the committed. The poor can just go hang as far as they are concerned.

  • anyfool

    People in work do resent them, these people in this street, by and large are the professional idle, although this outright hostility is tempered by the thought that it could be you if the state collapses because of the vast borrowings needed to provide for them.
    The real problem is with politicians who think it burnishes their credentials with their like minded and ex university chums in politics and the media, it does not do the same with the public, you only need to look at how voting for each party has slumped, people are dividing into who dislikes politicians, and people who hate them, and that goes for journalists and presenters in the MSM.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I think that saying that all those who go to work are wealthy is lazy journalese. Most of them are not welthy, not as rich as you are, dear scribbler, and that is the source of the scowls. If you are wealthy, as I suppose you to be, then you can have a Lady Bountiful smile for anyone. Here is a remark, not from the programme, not from Birmingham, but from a work colleague of my daughter in ‘wealthy’ Canterbury. ‘It really pisses me off when I struggle to be able to afford ONE child, to see these *****s with three or four I’m paying taxes for.’

    • HookesLaw

      Agreed
      And it’s wrong to talk about a poverty trap. There will always be a financial penalty in moving off benefits into work and you do not have to actually do anything for benefit money as opposed to wages. People need to make an effort and sacrifice to get on the work ladder.
      What we have to ask is how is it that with millions of new jobs created why are these people still on benefits and not in work? Amongst a range of disasters under Blair and Brown this is the biggest.
      But benefits street is just the latest fly on the wall programme to allow us to ‘stare at the lunatics for a penny’.

    • Kennybhoy

      Agreed.

      They should do a documentary series about the “working poor” by way of comparison.

  • MirthaTidville

    So this is what passes for entertainment on TV these days??…..No wonder I stopped watching it long ago

  • Daniel Maris

    Channel 4 at its best has always presented a much truer picture of modern life in the UK – whether it be undercover in Mosques or similar – than have the BBC and ITV “orthodox” lib-lefts.

  • LadyDingDong

    All I saw was an underclass of welfare-fed undesirables who will destroy us all. Brown’s client state, too stupid to get jobs and too thick to vote for the scum who created them.

    • In2minds

      Benefits Street, has C4 got it right? LadyDingDong says –

      “All I saw was an underclass of welfare-fed undesirables who will destroy us all”

      They do say that 50% of all Muslim men and 75% of their women folk are on benefits. But none appear in the film, is that odd?

      • HookesLaw

        Perhaps because ‘they’ are wrong?

        • notme3

          Really? Are you sure? I can point you to the stats, if you ask nicely.

      • Zeus

        Walking duvet covers,subtitles and ‘helping’ at the local takeaway/taxi firm/security firm/insert illegal working does not make good TV.

      • Airey Belvoir

        Muslims would probanly not agree to be filmed -convenient for the programme makers.

      • outraged

        One Pakistani neighbour fed rice to 14 starving Romanians. Its the only Muslims character so far.

  • Ricky Strong

    I’m still deliberating as to whether I should watch this programme, but then again I could just walk to the street, it is only a 20 minute stroll from where I live. And this confirms the point made about the divide in Birmingham, the area in which I reside is divided by a main road (the Hagely). On one side, Edgbaston with its tree lined roads and multi-million pound houses, and the other side, well, watch the programme.
    And for the record I live in the hazy bit in the middle, where the Bentleys drive past the prostitutes.

    • Tom W Huxley

      The Hagley Road is exactly what I was thinking of. In fact extreme poverty and wealth straddle across it, but the proximity is absolutely ridiculous.

      • Ricky Strong

        Birmingham is the real life Grand Theft Auto, drug deals on the streets, prostitution, endless begging, violence (lots of) and Georgian mansions, flash cars and investment that only ever results in big city buildings for the banks and law firms.

        WatTylersGhost made a good point about a lack of opportunity and ambition. Something I so often hear down my local is people saying how they feel that politicians don’t care for the likes of them. They have seen their communities systematically destroyed, they don’t recognise the place anymore. And many of these people used to hold down good honest jobs. I have one friend who begs people for work, the job centre is as much use as conviction in the commons.

    • In2minds

      Talking of Birmingham Ricky Strong says –

      “And for the record I live in the hazy bit in the middle” –

      Ah the squeezed middle, but then that’s the place most of live in! We
      are the people who pay vast sums of money via taxation so the
      underclass can take part in a C4 show about ‘real’ life and entertain
      the nation. And the double whammy here is this huge pile of money is mismanaged buy the people who live on the nice side of the Hagley Road in Edgbaston. Why do we allow this?

  • brossen99

    Interesting to note that they don’t show any chronically sick people !
    http://nollyprott.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/green-holocaust-tidied-up-after-first-publication-june-2012/

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