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Why Are We Ignoring the Human Cost of Benefits Street?

31/01/2014 10:51 GMT | Updated 01/04/2014 10:59 BST

Benefits Street, the latest Channel 4 'reality' TV documentary, has been the subject of much controversy. If you took most of the discussion around it as gospel, you'd be forgiven for assuming Benefits Street amounts to a weekly showcase of why the Right has got it right on benefits: 'poverty porn', a real-life caricature of dependency culture, an example of the feckless, undeserving poor.

The show has - predictably - been seized upon by the Right, held up as an example of Broken Britain, of a community that somewhere along the way managed to lose its moral compass. The press has generally screamed: 'this is a result of our bloated, exorbitant welfare state'. Iain Duncan Smith has decided to capitalise on the opportunity to slam welfare. In a moment of narcissism so extreme it would be almost comical if it wasn't having such life-destroying consequences, he compared himself to William Wilberforce, and his mission to 'free' those stuck on benefits to the campaigns to end slavery. Tellingly, his speech made reference to 'welfare' thirty times; he spoke of 'help' on only thirteen occasions.

Even those critical of the programme have generally played into this rhetoric. Socialist poster boy Owen Jones tore into the show's producers, accusing them of "reinforcing widespread prejudices...echoing the Government mantra about skivers". While his questioning of the media's agenda was at least refreshing, Jones saw Benefits Street as no more than an "unsympathetic examples of unemployed people...[portrayed] in the worst possible light". Similarly disgusted, 'liberals' across the country have signed a petition - now with over 50,000 signatories - demanding the show be taken off air for its distortion and for 'stirring up hatred'.

I am dismayed by this reaction. On finally - and somewhat hesitantly - tuning in, I found myself asking whether I'd watched the same programme. What I saw on Benefits Street was a way of living that no sane person would ever choose, and a community that, against all odds, generally rallied together in the face of extreme material and social deprivation. It could not be reduced to fly-on-the- wall poverty porn; residents filmed simply are not, despite much of what has been said around the show, easy-living scroungers, too contented with their bumper Sky packages to look for readily-available work.

Rather, Benefits Street is a damning indictment of the massive, ever-widening, inequality that exists in Britain today. It exposes the extreme poverty that has leeched its way into neighbourhoods up and down the country. Regardless of the fact that the show chose to ignore the residents of the James Turner Street who do work, Benefits Street spoke much more about the inevitable consequences of this abandonment; it is a stark reminder of the need, now more than ever, for wide-scale societal reform, rather than just further slashing of the welfare state.

What chance does White Dee's five-year-old child stand of staying in school - never mind getting a job - when he is playing on the same pavement where adults lie around taking drugs? Why is it that Mark and Becky, so young they look like children themselves, are only offered support in learning how to deal with their out-of-control toddler after social services have been called in to assess whether they are unfit parents? How has our education system failed so badly that many of the residents are unable to read the bills they perpetually struggle to pay?

Our politicians have allowed, and simply ignored, the huge growth of an underclass. We should not dismiss these people as feckless scroungers; they are the victims of a system that has left them next to unemployable. What surprised me most about the show was the hopeless optimism that endured in spite of everything. A sense of community spirit somehow prevails, work remains an aspiration for people; Mark even manages to find employment, though has to quit after the commission-only nature of his contract leaves him worse off than when he was on benefits.

Yes the programme raises some important questions about the nature of our society. It seems quite right that work should never put someone at a financial disadvantage to a life on benefits. And it seems crazy that our legal system is so weak that there is effectively no disincentive to stop Danny from shoplifting until he gets caught.

But, ultimately, the money in Benefits Street spent on cigarettes, alcohol and drugs is not merely an indication that the welfare bill could be spent more effectively - it is a human tragedy. These people have essentially been abandoned by the state, allowed only the bleakest existence. Yet the dominant response has been to focus on the few clips that feed into the right-wing rhetoric, the most immediately sensationalist, scandalous events on James Turner Street. Surely, though, the very existence of neighbourhoods like Benefits Street is the real scandal.

If, as David Cameron, repeatedly claims, this is an 'Aspiration Nation', then it seems we have consigned swathes of the population to outsider status - whole communities are being denied any real chance to make something of themselves. Benefits Street has provided a unique opportunity - it has made the nature of our welfare state an unprecedentedly hot topic. That chance needs to be seized upon by progressives everywhere. They must not get lost in the smaller picture, but change the nature of the debate itself.