It was fitting on the day that Channel 4's documentary Benefits Street aired its first episode, Chancellor George Osborne announced a further round of £25 billion worth of spending cuts. Coming mostly from the welfare budget, Osborne said 2014 would be the year of 'hard truths.'
Derided by most on the Left, the first episode captured the ups and downs, but mainly downs, of a few residents trying to survive on James Turner Street. Owen Jones said it reinforced 'widespread prejudices,' whilst the Guardian referred to it as 'Poverty porn.' Hammering away at the show, petitions appeared (one now signed by over 20,000) demanding it be axed, whilst almost 2,000 people complained to Ofcom.
To the Right, the show proved Osborne right. The jobless are feckless, feral and fat. Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, told Newsnight 'It opens a window on part of our welfare state, our country, and if what we see is shocking, then the question is shouldn't we be changing the system?'
Regardless, the show has captured the British zeitgeist. Had the first episode been broadcast in 2013, it would have been Channel 4's most popular show, pulling in almost 5 million viewers. In this Britain where everybody is middle class, the surest way to prove it is by shouting at the television 'How can you be on benefits and have a plasma TV?' or 'How can you be that poor and still be fat?'
But both the Left and the Right miss the point.
Benefits Street is the strongest argument against further welfare cuts because these people aren't happy. Welfare austerity continues because the public feel that payments are too generous; they stop people wanting to work, make life too comfortable for them.
Watching grown adults counting out pennies on a street corner to see whether they have enough to buy a can of lager is indicative of this stereotype.
Our first stop is always to confirm that only a tiny minority of the 2.39 million unemployed in Britain today are alcoholics. Whilst true, this is dangerous. It suggests there's a discrepancy between actual jobseekers and the skivers we all hate so much. It's this discrepancy, and the creation of a leeching 'bad' unemployed, that fuels further welfare cuts.
But alcoholism isn't fun it's a dependency. Really they aren't buying beers so they can have a big old knees up, it's because they are ill.
Fungi isn't unemployed because he's lazy, it's because nobody taught him to read.
Cutting their benefits won't push them into work, it will just change the means through which the addicted obtain their drugs and likely result in higher crime rates.
Benefits Street gives the untouchables a human face. There's a community there. Dee Roberts, arguably the star of the show, looks after the worst off in the group, Fungi, by helping him with budgeting and allowing him to use her landline to call the council.
She helps her community face the constant threats of eviction, arrest and hunger with the cool head of any community leader. The programme shows us that these people actually exist, they aren't just figures on a screen.
Yes people will spit and say, 'Good, they deserve it,' but actually, they don't. These people can't go out and work, they have nowhere near the correct skill set for this modern economy. And yet we deride them for it.
The left should realise this. Benefits Street shows us that being on benefits stinks. Instead of taking more money away from them, we should support them. Sure, maybe not through cash, but through funding better support schemes to help these people get out of the benefits/dependency cycle and into work. That's the fairest way to reduce the welfare budget, but perhaps it's too much of a 'hard truth' for Osborne, and most of us, to take.Suggest a correction