The fate of groups is bound up with the words that designate them (Bourdieu, 1984)
Aust[ralian] election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy. Others nations to follow in time. (Rupert Murdoch tweet 2013)
Benefits Street, made by Love productions, is a six-episode reality television programme first screened on the 6th of January 2014 on Channel Four. The ten-second opening sequence begins with a camera panning over the rooftops of a row of terraced houses, a generic ‘view from above’ which establishes from the outset ‘the voyeurism of one class looking at another’ (Higson 1996:152, see also Lovell 1996 and Tyler 2011). As the shot pans across the roofs, a woman’s voice calls out the word ‘unemployed’ in a soft Birmingham (Brummy) accent. The shot then cuts to street-level, a young woman, dressed in a hooded top, jeans and a baseball cap appears, filmed from behind she is walking down a street, pointing to individual houses, while she chants in unison with a man (who is off camera), ‘unemployed, unemployed, unemployed’. Then an elderly male voice with a Caribbean lilt begins speaking off camera, ‘You see this street here, James Turner Street’. The film cuts again, and the camera pans across the street revealing three men, two of them are smoking in the doorway of a house, a third, his face pixelated, approaches them in a hooded sports top. This is followed by a rapid cut to a shot of a large pile of domestic waste in the street, split black plastic rubbish sacks lie under a tree spilling their contents across road and pavement as children play nearby. Chants of ‘unemployed, unemployed’ punctuate this sequence of visual shots. The elderly male narrator then appears in the frame, speaking directly to camera in extreme close up, he finishes his sentence ‘this…used to be one of the best streets …. now…one of the worst’. Continue reading
This week a senior Channel 4 executive, in charge of the making of programmes like Benefits Street and Skint, accused critics of so-called ‘poverty porn’ of ‘a form of censorship’ and declared that: “I defend our right – and the necessity – to tell the stories of some of the distressed parts of our society.”
To us, this has a very odd ring to it. We have been critics of Benefits Street. But we had not considered ourselves in the business of censorship – or to be on the wrong side of a moral claim about the right or necessity of reporting the problems or social distress of people who may be on benefits. Continue reading
In Bad Girls in Britain, a study of the role of gender in debates on justice and welfare, Pamela Cox argues that young women have been cast as a threatening and destabilising force in Britain since at least the early 19th century – a process fuelled by anxieties including the advance of feminism and the increasing social and financial independence of working-class girls. According to Cox: ‘young single women with no domestic responsibilities to restrain their spending or their morals have been seen as irresponsible, sexually precocious pleasure-seekers who threaten the future of the family and the long-term stability of the state’. With their economic and sexual emancipation presented as the root of their declining morality, the process of reforming ‘delinquent’ girls was ‘geared to the production of respectable working-class women’, and the private sexual choices of working-class girls were publicly scrutinised and judged in debates on welfare reform (Cox, p.3, p.10, p.165). Sound familiar? Like much present-day political rhetoric, the current critical media presentation of young working-class women is a peculiar turbo-charged variant on its Victorian forerunner, seemingly intent on resurrecting stereotypes of the disrespectable, undeserving poor. Continue reading
*A version of this article was originally posted on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog.
The UK is in the grip of what seems like permanent austerity. Political parties strive to be seen as the most qualified to make the “tough long-term economic decisions.” Only this week we have heard George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron announce plans at the Conservative Party conference for even tougher and more punitive welfare sanctions in an attempt to cut the deficit. But these so-called ‘tough’ decisions most often seem to be about punishing people in poverty, and never about clamping down on tax evasion of the wealthy. Continue reading
Welcome to the website that has been set up by Kim Allen (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Dan Silver and Amina Lone (Social Action and Research Foundation) to help build debate around our upcoming event Does ‘Poverty Porn’ undermine the Welfare State? which takes place in Manchester on the 6th November.
The event is part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Sciences – a series of public events which seek to raise the profile of social science research and explore how it can and does contribute to society (you can read more about the festival here)
Our event will bring together social science researchers, policymakers, journalists, activists and the general public to discuss a pressing public issue: the relationship between welfare policy and media representations of poverty.
In the context of ongoing public debates about Channel 4’s ‘Benefits Street’ – the so-called ‘documentary’ series charting life on benefits – this event will raise questions on the impact of stigmatising media portrayals of poverty on government policy and public attitudes towards welfare.
We hope you will join us.
Over the coming weeks we will be adding more content to the site – including further details of the speakers – however you can take a look at the draft programme and our fantastic line up of speakers here.