Middle-class Britain has been shocked by the ‘hidden reality’ of welfare ghettos apparently revealed by TV programmes such as Benefits Street, Iain Duncan Smith explained as he spoke at the Centre for Social Justice today about how his welfare-to-work reforms are apparently beginning to work.
“Whilst the middle-class majority were aware of the problems in poor communities, they remained largely unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates,” he stated, perhaps giving more indication of his own lack of awareness than that of others.
True nature? Is this actually how the work and pensions secretary does his research? Does he sit in his office, with his back to the £10,000 taxpayer-funded portrait of himself, feet up on the mahogany desk, watching Benefits Street and learning about how poor people live? Or perhaps he watches from home, in one of the wings of the 16th-century Tudor mansion that he inherited in 2001. (Culture of entitlement, anyone?)
This is exactly why programmes like Benefits Street are dangerous: they appear credible. As anyone who has worked in TV will tell you, documentaries never simply ‘reveal the truth’; they tell a story. That’s what makes them interesting. The story in this case is: Benefits culture is out of control and it has become a way of life for all claimants.
Only it isn’t, and it hasn’t.
The vast majority of people claiming unemployment benefits in the UK do so as a last resort. The people I spoke to in my research for Feral Youth considered signing on as a shameful option – something they would do anything to avoid. This is the reality. Benefit fraud only accounts for a small fraction of our expenditure (roughly £1.2bn compared to an estimated £65bn in profiteering by buy-to-let landlords, subsidies to banks, tax-dodging by the super-rich etc.)
The documentary is carefully crafted to show only the extreme components of life for the inhabitants of James Turner Street: the neglect, the abuse, the lack of pride and of course, the sense of entitlement. In fact, recent research on this exact same street by Vector Research, painted a somewhat different picture. “None of us would have suggested that it was a cosy neighbourhood we would seek to live in,” said Paul Baker, who led the research, “but it was far from the hell hole portrayed on Benefits Street.”
What Iain Duncan Smith is doing, quite unashamedly, is using propaganda to justify his hideous reforms that serve to push deprived communities further into poverty, rather than lift them out.
The loudest message that came out of my research, which involved spending time with young people in charities, schools and on the streets in the wake of the London Riots, was this:
They talk about getting us off benefits and into jobs, but what jobs? I been trying for two years and I can’t get no work.
Job prospects, especially for young people with little social capital, are dire. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith, most people can’t get away with fake qualifications on their CV and the longer they remain out of work, the harder it becomes to continue the search.
In fairness, IDS did reference his ‘visit after visit’ to deprived areas, which gave him a sense of how urgently ‘life change’ was needed.
“In neighbourhoods blighted by worklessness… where gangs were prevalent, debt and drugs the norm… families broken down… those living there had one thing in common; they were for the most part dependent on the state for their daily needs.”
I can’t help wondering how deeply Mr Smith conversed with the people who made up these deprived communities, as he was toured through in his expensive suit with his entourage of staff. Did he hang out on street corners and ask how young people spent their time now the local youth centre had closed down? Did he ask the teenagers in the shadows of the tower block whether they were still thinking of going to university, now that tuition fees would leave them £36,000 in debt? Did he get invited into homes on the estate to talk to desperate mums about how they were coping with paying the spare room subsidy, given that there weren’t any smaller properties in the area?
During a school visit in south London, I asked a bunch of teenagers what they would say if they had the opportunity to speak to David Cameron. They replied:
Try living our lives for a day. Just try it.
And that, I believe, is what Iain Duncan Smith needs to do if he really wants to end the ‘twilight world where life is dependent on what is given to you, rather than what you are able to create.’
Or, I suppose, he could just stay in his inherited £2m mansion and watch it on TV.
Polly Courtney is author of Feral Youth – the story of the London Riots through the eyes of a disenfranchised teenage girl.