If Benefits Street, a new reality show on Channel 4 that follows the lives of the poor, welfare-dependent residents of James Turner Street in a deprived area of Birmingham, has fuelled one side of a raging public debate in the U.K. on social security and entitlements, Duck House, a play running at a London theatre, should have provided ammunition for the other.
Duck House — a satirical take on the 2009 ‘expense scandal’ in which British Members of Parliament were found to have made outrageous and clearly illegal expense claims, all borne by the British taxpayer — unfortunately does not have the exposure enjoyed by Benefits Street, which is reportedly watched by five million viewers. Indeed, the expenses scandal would appear to have been all but forgotten in the current national conversation on welfare.
Benefits Street, on the other hand, is the subject of furious discussion because it goes to the heart of the debate on economic policy. An unforgiving close-up of the lives of those on benefits, it depicts the residents of James Turner Street as lazy social scroungers and benefits fraudsters, kept afloat by state doles that taxpayers must fund. The message is toxic. It pits the working against the unemployed by suggesting that welfare and subsidies create selfish, limited and dysfunctional dependents with no incentive to look for work.
For the coalition government and its supporters, the debate that the serial has ignited comes with welcome figures on employment and growth for the economy, a turnaround they claim has much to do with the tough welfare measures that they have undertaken in the past few years.
In the last three months, 280,000 new entrants have been added to a workforce that has now risen to 30.15 million: the biggest quarterly increase in employment since 1997. With the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee linking the increase to “tightening in the eligibility requirements for some state benefits,” and with official figures released on Tuesday showing that the economy had grown by 1.9 per cent last year — the highest since the financial crisis began — the government believes that its political support will also see an upswing.
The question remains — will the modest economic recovery reverse the “standards of living crisis” that welfare schemes provide a safety net for? The Labour Party has put the issue at the centre of its political strategy for the 2015 elections, with its leader Ed Miliband successfully channelling popular anger over the impact of welfare cuts and soaring energy costs.
What are welfare benefits? The government spends roughly £200 billion on benefits such as pension payments, disability allowances, allowances for people out of work, benefits for families with children, and benefits to help with rent and council tax. This amount will be slashed by a further £25 billion, if the Conservative Party is elected to power in 2015, Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has announced.
Critics argue that the public hysteria that has been created against those on benefits — powerfully fed by shows like Channel 4’s Benefits Street — is based on misinformation. “The biggest single slice of welfare payments, £144bn, goes on pensions. Just 2.6 per cent of the total welfare bill is spent on unemployment benefit,” said James Mead, Senior Economist for the think tank NEP, in an article on its website.
The reality is that incomes of working people continue to fall, as Graeme Cooke, Research Director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, noted in an article last month. “The income of the median working age household fell by 6.4 per cent between 2007/08 and 2011/12,” he said. “This staggering fact hasn’t made the headlines today, illustrating that the squeeze on living standards is no longer ‘news.’
The political challenge is to stop it becoming an accepted, inevitable fact of our national life.”
(To be concluded)