Firstly I would like to suggest you could go to any street in Britain and find people in receipt of benefits. I define benefits as the provision of money and services funded via a national and local system of taxation. These benefits include, for example, tax credits, pensions, carers allowance, unemployment benefits, housing benefit, residential care fees. Then their are the benefits in kind, you know access to a GP, hospital, school, college, police, ambulance, fire service, environment agency, recreational facilities i.e. libraries, swimming pools etc etc. From my perspective our ‘benefits’ system is fantastic, demonstrating a genuine ‘big society’, one that has stood the test of time and one we lose at our peril. Yes some avoid work, live their lives differently than maybe you or I, but I firmly believe these are the minority and we should not be basing major welfare reform on a negative discourse aimed at a minority. Surely it is better to focus on the positives of the majority to shape our futures? The majority want to work and live in decent housing, this would mean then, creating stable employment opportunities and ensuring people receive a decent living wage and ensuring their is affordable housing so that they do not have to fall back on the benefits system.
So coming from this personal, and ideological, perspective I made myself watch the 2nd episode of Benefits Street and I was happily surprised at what I saw. What did I see?
I saw a street in Birmingham where those who represent a minority of british society, and who are often the most marginalised, live. I knew nothing of how they got their, what their story was, I have no idea how or why individuals were addicted to drugs or alcohol, I have no idea of the events that have led them to living in this particular street at this particular time. There are many streets like this in Britain, and individuals like these all live on similar streets because that’s where the housing they can access is located. It’s usually located in places possibly you and I would not like to live in, some of us have the resources to ensure we do not live in these places (I managed this through accessing free higher education as a mature student and being able to find stable employment). However, I am all too aware that my life could change in a blink of an eye. As a public sector worker my employment is insecure and a loss of job could result in a move somewhere more affordable. I’ve experienced it before, my father was a hard-working guy with three young children, he had an accident and could never work again, we then lived on benefits for the rest of my childhood and lived in streets not unlike benefits street with people not unlike those on benefits street.
All I can say is shame on those who want to use this programme as an excuse to stigmatise those in receipt of benefits even more, your energies would be better spent trying to create a society of hope, pathways to real opportunities for those in the minority, those most marginalised, those most powerless.
Finally, if those on the right were hoping to spread more fear (the Romanians are coming!) they were probably sadly disappointed. Most revealing to many was the Romanians plight. Used and abused as slaves, stuck in a country that makes judgements about whole countries and sections of society based on biased political soundbites and tabloid headlines rather than actually finding out facts.
If anything I thought the Romanians stories shamed our politicians, and some sections of the media, for deliberately facilitating an environment of fear and hate in this country. Their energies would be better spent facilitating an environment of confidence in ourselves as a nation and respect for others as the foundation on which to understand issues that face us all.