THE BLOG

Benefits Street: Easy Prey

23/01/2014 15:36 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Last week, fellow student Alex Yeates asked in his blog post about Benefits Street, "Why shouldn't we be angry?" After all, he argues, we should be allowed to disagree with the attitudes of the minority who abuse the welfare state. And surely the great British public knows that not all benefits claimants are fraudsters, that the folk on Benefits Street make up only a small proportion?

Sadly, that isn't the case. The problem with this argument is that the media forms a large part of the way our perceptions are formed. From body image and gender roles to immigration and politics, the way we see the world is filtered through the culture we live in; and the media that forms a part of it. Unfortunately, empirical truth often doesn't get a look-in.

An Ipsos MORI survey from last year shows that on average, we think teenage pregnancies are 25 times more common than official estimates suggest. The public also thinks that immigrants make up 31% of the population - more than double the true figure. And, surprise surprise, the people asked in the survey thought that 34% more benefit money was claimed fraudulently than the best official estimate. That's the difference between £24 in every £100 and 70p in every £100. Clearly the way that the public perceive those on benefits isn't accurate, so why might that be?

Could it perhaps be the sensationalist headlines which grace the front pages of so many of our papers on such a regular basis? Stories about claimants moving into £2 million homes and living the high life with booze, fags and big TVs. Stories about a tiny minority of the 20.3 million people who claim some kind of state welfare. Stories which exacerbate confirmation bias, the tendency we humans have to favour stories that confirm the beliefs we already hold.

Laying aside for a moment the issues surrounding the individuals portrayed and whether they were mislead or misrepresented by the programme producers, the residents of the Birmingham street are far from the only victims. Not only does Benefits Street propagate the myth of the work-shy, morally reprehensible benefits scrounger, it also neglects the majority of benefits claimants. Contrary to popular belief, most are not on unemployment benefits. In fact, the largest part of the welfare bill is spent on state pensions, with disability benefits and family benefits also coming in costing substantially more than unemployment.

In fact, most people of working age who claim benefits are in work, and are victims of a minimum-wage that doesn't accurately represent the cost of living, according to Owen Jones. By perpetuating the existing stereotypes of those that claim benefits, the programme lends credibility to the current government's program of cuts, widely condemned by anti-poverty campaigners.

However accurately or otherwise the programme represents the community on James Turner street, it's a woefully incomplete portrait of benefits claimants as a whole. By vilifying the occupants of one Birmingham street, both Channel 4 and Love Productions are reinforcing damaging negative stereotypes. As part of the mass media, both have an obligation to fair and balanced reporting which they have failed to fulfil; that's why we should be angry.