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'Benefits Street' Is a Red Herring for the Real Issue Surrounding the Welfare State

13/05/2015 10:15 BST | Updated 12/05/2016 10:59 BST

Deny it all you want, but at some point in your life you've been forced to clear your browsing history because of some questionable content you found yourself viewing at nearly midnight on a Friday after a stressful week. Sometimes the temptation is just too much to avoid surfing to the wrong side of the tracks and what follows is a swift re-writing of history where we pretend that we were on the phone or had dropped off for a moment instead.

I daresay if there was a browsing history for our television sets, many of them would have had a quick flush clean on Monday evening - as around 3m people tuned in to a good bit of 'poverty porn' in Channel 4's Benefits Street.

That's actually a dip since the first series peaked at something near 6.5m viewers.

The producers of the show tell us that it's a documentary designed to take a look at the lives of those who access the welfare state, but it's difficult to shake the feeling that there's also a good portion of poverty-shaming going on. The vast majority of people who are paid benefits are not work-shy and are actively looking for, applying for, and getting jobs. Equally, a huge proportion of them is not wrongly claiming welfare and is not involved in crime.

But that doesn't make good TV, so that's why there were scenes of drug dealing in the first episode of series two earlier this week and that's why police are now investigating. The series would likely be cancelled if it actually portrayed what the vast majority of those who access welfare experience.

For the record, according to the government's own statistics for the 2013-14 tax year, 2.1 per cent of benefits were wrongly paid. It's important to note that that figure isn't the amount that was fraudulently claimed, too. It also includes overpayments that were not the claimant's fault and errors made by the Department for Work and Pensions, while not taking into account that £1.5bn was underpaid to people who were entitled to money but didn't take it and that overpayments are frequently recovered.

Here we are focusing on the £1.2bn paid fraudulently (around 0.7 per cent of the total benefit bill), while for the same year £119bn went unpaid in taxes - and that comes to roughly 100 times the amount. Despite that discrepancy, you'd still much rather be branded a tax evader than a benefit claimant - even if you're entitled to the welfare. There's little done to demonise those who can afford to pay their bills but choose not to, while those who can barely afford to eat are often told that they need to work harder if they want to have something as luxurious as enough food.

After all, we can only expect people to work hard if we keep them hungry.

We're directing our anger at the people who are most in need of help and we're completely ignoring those in a position to do something about it. Workers in, for example, supermarkets are paid a pittance compared to the store's profits and many of the staff have their pay subsidised by in-work benefits. As an indirect result, that means many of you reading this are helping the big corporations turn over big profit as they keep their workers on low income.

Where's the TV show to demonise those who could but don't pay a wage that someone with a family could live on? Where's the TV show that follows the lives of millions of people in need of in-work welfare and are desperate to make ends meet? Where's the TV show that follows the young people fresh out of education and desperate for work, handing out CVs that don't get a response? Where's the TV show that looks at the disabled people who lose or face delays on their benefit for ridiculous reasons?

As our wages are squeezed down, everybody in the lower reaches of the pay scale - which is the vast majority of us for the record - is being conditioned to envy the unemployed who have Sky, to be angry at the 'gold-plated pensions' of the public sector (which aren't as gold-plated as you'd think). All the while, the rich and the powerful spunk away another few million on a yacht and keep us in our place.

It's like being told by the police to be annoyed with the bloke up the street for not being robbed as much as you have following a burglary instead of them going after the person that smashed your back window and nicked your laptop. Yeah, so both houses were broken into, but he had less stuff taken and that's the real crime...

Benefits Street is less a factual documentary, more a piece of propaganda that helps the people at the top - the people who can afford to help, but don't - off the hook.